Just The Facts, Ma'am

A contemporary playwriting team takes on Sherlock.

click to enlarge DETECTIVE STORY: Richard B. Watson is an - unusually glamorous Holmes. - FRANK ATURA
DETECTIVE STORY: Richard B. Watson is an unusually glamorous Holmes.

I think there are a couple of reasons why Sherlock Holmes has shown such staying power over the last century or so. The first is what he stands for personally: the value of a rigorously scientific approach. Unlike other fictional figures — Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, say, or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll — Holmes' scientific outlook produces only moral triumphs, winning for justice and the rule of law nothing but unambiguous victories. Sure, Holmes has his idiosyncrasies — his cocaine habit, his devotion to the violin, his long bachelorhood. But these are details that don't for a moment threaten the potency of his brilliance. Holmes is science the way it was supposed to be: single-mindedly virtuous, the last best hope of humankind.

If we moderns have learned that cold logic can lead to horrors — to extermination camps, nuclear weapons and, recently, all the dangers of biotechnology — we can always find comfort in the figure of Holmes, whose intellect serves only the Good and the True.

But it's not just Holmes' goodness that makes Arthur Conan Doyle's stories so attractive. There's also the fact that in a Holmes tale, every mystery has a solution. There's no relativism in Holmes' world, no multiplicity of truths, no bizarre paradoxes such as those we find in Freudian psychology or quantum physics. In the world of Sherlock Holmes, light is a particle or a wave — never both — and if you honestly can't decide, it's because you're no Sherlock Holmes.

Sure, the universe has lots of dark corners, furtive creatures, under-the-table bargains. But the obscurity of these items is never fundamental: Eventually Holmes will discover them, expose them to view and articulate their significance. In a post-Einsteinian cosmos, one of whose basic laws is the Uncertainty Principle, it's comforting to get to the end of a Sherlock Holmes story and find out whodunit, howdunit, and when, where and whydunit. This isn't our world — we're still debating the O.J. verdict — but it's a landscape that we recognize from childhood, if from nowhere else. Finding it again with Conan Doyle, we can't help but feel pleasure.

Which brings me to Sherlock Holmes & the West End Horror, presently on stage at Sarasota's Asolo Theatre. This is a pleasant if insignificant romp through Victorian London, and it offers both of the enjoyments to which I've referred: light-giving intellect and an illuminable world. It also offers us contact with the glitterati of 1895, among them George Bernard Shaw, Henry Irving, W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells and Ellen Terry.

The mystery that Holmes is asked to solve is nicely difficult, and the solution he finds is, of course, total, flawless. But it's just this fidelity to Arthur Conan Doyle's original worldview that makes the play less than successful. After all, if we want Doyle's perspective, we need only find our childhood copy of the stories, open anywhere and (delightedly) read.

The West End Horror, on the other hand, is the work of two modern writers (Anthony and Marcia Milgrom Dodge, based on a novel by Nicholas Meyer) working in the 21st century. Surely they have something more to provide for a modern audience than a People Magazine glimpse at late 19th-century London. Surely they have some other cleverly, wonderfully modern angle from which to present Holmes and Dr. Watson.

They don't. The plot of The West End Horror (minus the celebrities) could have been conceived 100 years ago. There's been a murder: the victim is Jonathan McCarthy, a theater critic and acquaintance of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw asks Holmes to take the case, and though Holmes hasn't worked since the demise of his nemesis Moriarty, he decides to sign on. At the victim's apartment, he finds the book that McCarthy had reached for as he was dying: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

He also finds an Indian cigar, and the suggestion that Oscar Wilde is somehow involved. Calling on Wilde, he learns that McCarthy had tried to blackmail the poet and playwright, but had ceased his efforts once Wilde threatened to expose the critic's liaison with the actress Jessie Rutland. Holmes proceeds to the Savoy Theatre, where W.S. Gilbert is preparing his latest comic opera, and where Rutland is employed. But before Holmes can speak to her, she too is stabbed to death. Then Holmes and Dr. Watson suddenly fall ill, and a mysterious assailant forces the nearly unconscious detective to swallow a strange liquid…

This is an interesting but hardly riveting narrative — not after the thousands of detective shows we've all seen on television and in the movies. As for the acting by the Asolo troupe, it's only convincing in a few cases. Richard B. Watson comes across as an unusually glamorous Holmes, but he's talented and consistent, and eventually we accept his interpretation. James Clarke as Dr. Watson is almost too charismatic, though, and Aaron Kliner as Inspector Lestrade just seems a sad sack with an imperfect English accent.

Two other actors really shine — Ken Ferrigni as young Bernard Shaw and Douglas Jones in a handful of roles, including Holmes' (female) housekeeper and the actress Ellen Terry. But Arlyn Mick is unconvincing as Oscar Wilde, and Deanna Gibson doesn't begin to resemble the Indian Achmed Singh.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge's direction is usefully fast-paced, and Troy Hourie's set goes through so many permutations that it deserves awards for sprints and acrobatics. One of the most pleasing aspects of the production is the onstage piano work of Wayne Berman. Finally, Pamela Scofield's period costumes are fine: some of the funniest are the ones that clothe actor Jones.

But West End never really justifies itself. Not to worry: Just a few steps from the Asolo is the Ringling Museum, currently offering a Modernism and Surrealism exhibit. I walked there after the show and, surrounded by the work of Picasso and Klee, Dali and Ernst, Pollock and Rothko, felt I'd come home. Fifty to 80 years ago these painters tried to describe our condition, and their work is still up-to-date. Sherlock Holmes is all well and good, but one painting by de Chirico feels 100 times more important.

So yes, the game, as Holmes would say, is afoot.

But not, at the moment, on the Asolo stage.

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