L.A. Theater Review: ‘Mysterious Circumstances’

The curious death of a Sherlock Holmes obsessive provides the leaping-off point for an investigation into the detective's enduring legacy.

Hugo Armstrong, John Bobek, Austin Durant, Leo Marks, Ramiz Monsef, Helen Sadler, Alan Tudyk.

2 hours 5 minutes

If your typical Sherlock Holmes investigation is “elementary, my dear Watson,” then Holmesian meta-mystery “Mysterious Circumstances” amounts to higher-level calculus. Ingeniously adapted from David Grann’s New Yorker story, this clever stage retelling of the still-unsolved death of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fanatic takes an almost cinematic approach to the material, jumping around in time, dissolving between the worlds of reality and fiction, and even employing a “Clue”-like instant-replay device to cycle through all the possible culprits who could have been responsible for Sherlock Holmes super-collector Richard Lancelyn Green’s demise.

Sitting center stage as audiences find their seats is “the lost box,” a glowing trunk (à la “Pulp Fiction” briefcase) intended to represent the apocryphal archive of Doyle’s affairs, said to contain the late author’s autobiography, as well as several unpublished Holmes manuscripts. A kind of Holy Grail among his obsessive followers, these papers were in fact held under the safe keeping of his youngest daughter, Jean, finally surfacing at auction in 2004, shortly before Richard’s death — which both Grann and playwright Michael Mitnick imply was directly related to their release.

Mitnick reimagines Richard Lancelyn Green, embodied by chameleonic stage and screen actor Alan Tudyk, as an eccentric man of mystery: a scholar on all things Sherlock Holmes, deeply repressed homosexual, possessor of rare books and ephemera valued in the millions, and, of course, a corpse — which is how we first meet him, his body sprawled across his Persian rug and angled 90 degrees such that audiences seem to have an overhead view of the crime scene (one of many nifty tricks employed by director Matt Shakman, a helmer responsible for dozens of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” episodes — and a couple of “Game of Thrones” as well).

The narrative rewinds to find Richard showing off. Like his cerebral hero (whom Tudyk also plays), this is what the brainiac does best, impressing strangers and peers alike with his intellect: He dazzles a London cabbie en route to presenting his latest Holmes paper, he nitpicks the mistakes in a colleague’s latest presentation, and he bores prospects in a gay bar with his bookish prattle. These early scenes allow Mitnick to front-load the play with all the context audiences need to process its multi-stranded mystery.

As it turns out, there are several others deaths to be reckoned with here, including Doyle’s murder, in 1893, of Holmes himself; the tragic loss of his first wife, “Touie” (Helen Sadler), to tuberculosis; and decades later, the passing of Jean (also Sadler), which finally led to the archive’s release. Among these side misfortunes, the play seems most intent on addressing why Doyle would choose to kill off the character who had made him famous — a controversial act, which Doyle deemed “justifiable homicide,” that sparked many of the Sherlockian societies, who assembled to mourn their hero’s passing and to invent further adventures.

These tribute groups are highly competitive among themselves, though hardly homicidal enough to want Richard dead. Still, it’s fun to imagine a kind of villainous Illuminati lurking in the shadows of Sherlock’s legacy, willing to protect its secrets at any cost. Perhaps Richard, who leveraged his fortune to find the “lost box,” got too close: Just before intermission, Jean grants him 10 minutes alone with the archive.

En route to that revelation, the play jumps around a lot, dynamically using its seven-person cast in multiple roles (employing stage magic to body-double them at times), all of which helps to keep things lively: One moment, Richard’s visiting Reichenbach Falls, the Swiss site where Holmes’ nemesis, Moriarty (Hugo Armstrong, who also plays Richard’s American rival), pushed the detective to his death; the next, he’s sitting in a dentist’s chair, establishing a possible motive for his own murder.

But was it murder? (The next sentence potentially spoils the play’s most plausible explanation.) In one scene, Richard discusses Doyle’s story “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” wherein a woman elaborately stages her own suicide to look like a murder, underlining the possibility that Richard may have done the same — but to what end? Mitnick seems to have a few theories, although he takes enough dramatic license with Grann’s reporting that “Mysterious Circumstances” becomes a work of detective fiction in his hands. But what a fascinating puzzle it proves to be, looping around to answer that greatest mystery of all: Why does Sherlock Holmes loom so much larger in our collective consciousness than all other detectives?

Via Doyle’s biggest fan, the play argues that the author — who grew frustrated with his creation — helped to reorient society away from superstition toward science and reason. Toward the end, it gives Richard the chance to meet his idol (in heaven? in the past?). Rather than asking Doyle questions, he provides the solution to the riddle that troubled the writer, suggesting how to bring Holmes back for “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

In the intricate lead-up to that cathartic (and clearly impossible) encounter, the show provides audiences with more Holmes trivia than they can possibly absorb. It’s quite the ride, especially as staged with sophisticated screens and ever-changing sets, although likelier to satisfy amateurs than Sherlock savants, or else they wouldn’t dare put Tudyk in a deerstalker cap — the signature hat made famous onscreen, but never mentioned in Doyle’s stories. Whatever the explanation for Richard’s death, this inventive retelling makes the mystery every bit as intriguing as one of his hero’s classic cases.

L.A. Theater Review: 'Mysterious Circumstances'

A Geffen Playhouse production of a play in two acts by Matt Shakman, inspired by the New Yorker article “Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic.”

Production: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse; 500 seats; $120 top. Opened June 19, 2019; reviewed June 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Creative: Directed by Matt Shakman. Sets, Brett J. Banakis; costumes, E.B. Brooks; lighting, Elizabeth Harper; original music and sound design, Jonathan Snipes; production stage manager, Brooke Baldwin; assistant stage manager, Lizzie Thompson.

Cast: Hugo Armstrong, John Bobek, Austin Durant, Leo Marks, Ramiz Monsef, Helen Sadler, Alan Tudyk.

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