Playwright Ken Ludwig’s work thrives at regional theaters coast to coast, despite only intermittent New York appearances since 1989’s “Lend Me a Tenor” and his 1992 book for “Crazy For You.” His latest entertaining outing get its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe with a title announced in the program as “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery By Ken Ludwig” — awkward billing that at least leaves no doubt as to who the marquee names are. In any event, “Baskerville” should prove another boffo performer for the prolific writer, especially if future directors maintain the balance between melodrama and farce found here by Josh Rhodes.
One name not appearing on the credits sheet is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — which is odd, considering how faithfully Ludwig hews to the 1902 novel’s plot about mysterious murders in a mansion on the moors. Here Dr. Watson (Usman Ally) is more of a presence than his 221B Baker Street roommate, since the physician gets to sleuth on site at Baskerville Hall while Holmes (Euan Morton) sniffs around London. But the atmospheric plotting and subtle clues in what Doyle called his “Victorian creeper” mark “Baskerville” as a superior Holmesian entry.
The gimmick here, familiar after Patrick Barlow’s Hitchcockian stage adaptation “The 39 Steps,” has a pair of protagonists surrounded by an ensemble playing everyone else. Andrew Kober, Blake Segal and Liz Wisan divvy up some 35 parts among them, often bending genders in ways that could undercut the scary proceedings if not handled deftly.
Rhodes, who likely picked up tips on transformation while choreographing Broadway’s “Cinderella,” handles it all deftly. The performance style, also smacking of “39 Steps,” incorporates clever, lightning-fast changes of wigs, accents and wardrobe. Umbrellas drop from the ceiling, while the knee-high townhouses around the arena stage’s circumference double as chairs, platforms and prop chests.
More than a few wink-winks remind us it’s only a play, as Kober plays a scene between a Baskerville heir and Inspector Lestrade simply by switching hats. Audience members are enlisted to “deliver” tobacco across their row, or briefly accommodate cast members in their laps.
But it’s still Holmes and Watson vs. evil, a battle played for relatively high stakes. Morton is shorter and chubbier than your standard Holmes, but his eyes reveal the unmistakable crusader’s passion once the game’s afoot. In what must be a welcome break from smoldering antagonists in Ayad Akhtar dramas, Ally delivers a lightfooted, totally plausible Watson. He’s never dim, but his singleminded intensity causes him to do and say dim things, which seems exactly right.
The design team earns full marks. Wilson Chin transforms theater-in-the round into a fully functional spooky Victorian mansion, with Austin R. Smith’s eerie lighting and Bart Fasbender’s inspired music and sound actually prompting a few spectator jolts along the way. Shirley Pierson’s clothes, from pieces to full costumes, abet the cast’s strenuous efforts, as do Annette Ye and her corps of assistants and dressers, who justly join in the curtain call.
If the dialogue isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, and if a pair of suspects (played straight in Doyle) are vulgarized as a low-rent, unfunny ripoff of Igor and Frau Blucher from “Young Frankenstein,” these are minor annoyances. The farcical to-dos of this “Baskerville” keep threatening to capsize the drama without ever quite doing so, which makes all the difference.