In his heyday, the character of Sherlock Holmes was so popular that not even his creator could get rid of him.
Tired of writing adventures for the cocaine-addled detective and hoping to devote himself to more serious literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off his creation in the 1893 short story "The Final Problem." But pressure from fans was too great, and Conan Doyle returned to writing the character.
In the marketing material for its new show "The Game's Afoot," Virginia Repertory Theatre leans into Sherlock's likeness, showing local actor Scott Wichmann in the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape of Baker Street's finest. This is a bit misleading: Wichmann doesn't play Holmes, but the famous 20th century stage actor William Gillette.
An American who wrote the play "Sherlock Holmes" with Conan Doyle and portrayed the detective in both New York and London, Gillette used his amassed fortune to build a replica medieval castle in Connecticut. It's there that "The Game's Afoot" is set.
Following a Sherlock Holmes performance where someone made an attempt on his life, Gillette has called his friends and colleagues from the theater world to his mansion for a holiday retreat. But this is no ordinary Christmas party: Gillette hopes to expose the would-be assassin through a series of games.
Things get off to a slow start as the audience encounters Gillette's cast of contemporaries. Gillette, his best friend Felix (Joe Pabst) and Felix's wife Madge (Lisa Kotula) engage themselves in a game where they quote Shakespeare. The young actors Simon (Caleb Wade) and Aggie (Meg Carnahan) announce that they have just eloped. Gillette's rude mother Madge (Catherine Shaffner) presses just about all to share personal details they'd rather not.
The proceedings get a goosing with the addition of Daria Chase (Donna Marie Miller), a New York theater critic and gossip columnist. Miller gives the show some of its funniest moments as a character who's quick with a barb and even quicker to bed. As her adulterous lover, Pabst is charming as a witty actor with a tinge of jealousy over his best friend's success.
Wichmann is funny as well, but serves more as the eye of the storm for the happenings around him, the Jerry to everyone else's George, Elaine and Kramer. As the late arriving Inspector Goring, Audra Honaker pulls out all the stops to give her character a kooky presence.
It's these performances that buoy a show that would otherwise be mildly amusing. Ken Ludwig – better known for his comic plays "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo" – has created an uneven script that's all over the place, jumping from farcical moments to serious drama to pure nonsense; at one point, the characters yip like cartoon Indians in an attempt to scare away a murderer.
For light holiday fare, this murder mystery farce fits the bill, but you can't help but feel its lacking something elementary.
Virginia Repertory Theatre's "The Game's Afoot" plays through Jan. 6 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, 23069. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.