It’s hard to know what to make of Steven Dietz’s new play, “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.” Poised on the knife edge between loving homage and tongue-in-cheek parody, it ends up satisfying neither genre. That’s a pity, because the Pasadena Playhouse/Arizona Theater Company co-production lavishes considerable talent and resources on this clunky hybrid, which Dietz adapted from an 1899 script by American actor William Gillette (who made a comfortable career portraying the detective) and Holmes originator Arthur Conan Doyle.
There are moments when director David Ira Goldstein and his cast seem to be mocking the tropes and traditions of Holmes’ well-worn world. How else are we to take Mark Capri’s energetic, almost campy approach to Holmes, which includes an overly enunciated accent that sounds like it was lifted from a Henry Higgins elocution lesson?
The plot, a bit sexier than the classic Holmes storyline, involves the King of Bohemia (Preston Maybank), a high-spirited womanizer, whose impending marriage is endangered by the existence of a compromising photograph that shows him with comely American opera star Irene Adler (Libby West). The king fears blackmail. (In the pic, they’re simply posed together, smiling broadly. But in Victorian Europe, that’s enough, apparently, to derail royal nuptials.)
Holmes is contracted to retrieve the photo. The job gets personal when Irene outsmarts Britain’s most famous detective; for the first time in his career, Holmes’ misogyny is punctured by romantic feelings.
Holmes soon discovers the true villain isn’t Irene, but his archnemesis, Professor Moriarty (Laurence Ballard), who has ensnared the unsuspecting soprano by arranging her to fall in love with and marry his nefarious underling, James Larrabee (Kenneth Merkx Jr.).
Holmes and Moriarty engage in a many-chaptered game of high-stakes cat-and-mouse that ends with a showdown at a towering cliff overlooking a waterfall (the only cheesy effect in William Forrester’s otherwise ingenious and inventive set). Dietz leaves us with a denouement that suggests we haven’t seen the last of Holmes.
Performances range from understated (Victor Talmadge’s Watson) to melodramatic (Capri’s Holmes and Maybank’s Bohemian king, who leaves no morsel of scenery unchewed). It’s all good fun on the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce level, but one wishes for deeper insight into Holmes’ tortured psyche. That happens once, when Holmes reveals his infamous cocaine addiction and Watson implores him to kick the habit. But it’s the only time when the story hints at modern psychological complexity.
Perhaps that’s too much to expect of this antique source. Yet if Dietz is going to deliver a period piece, then he should remain pure to his goal. In its present bastardized form, “The Final Adventure” uncomfortably straddles the 19th and 21st centuries, with no firm footing in either.