To get the most of the elementary essentials out of the way: Ken Ludwig’s farcical version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous of Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” at McCarter Theater, begins on a dark and stormy night on the moors.
Let’s cut to the chase for those who don’t know the contrived/convoluted plot that keeps Holmes and his straight man/sidekick, Dr. Watson, in hot pursuit of a dastardly murderer and a bestial hound out-of-hell: Someone’s going to inherit some money and some rather bizarre characters are going to either die a horrible death or manage to stay alive in the creepy Devonshire manor house Baskerville Hall.
In keeping a modicum of faith with the novel’s many Gothic and ghoulish characters and the contortions of the suspense-laden plot, Ludwig affixes the currently favored psychological evaluation to the brilliant Holmes. He is, as superbly interpreted by a hyper-mannered Gregory Wooddell, a prime candidate for a distinguished place within the autism spectrum. Allowing for shades of Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch (both of whom played Holmes for British television), Wooddell’s penchant for flippant discourse and fidgety behavior is uniquely his own and fun to observe.
This is in marked contrast to Lucas Hall’s more centered and stable personality as Watson, who, as the plot and Holmes decree, is put smack dab into the thick of things. But it’s these things that actually become the stars of this not-as-funny-as-it-ought-to-be charade — despite the fact that the three other hard-working actors are assigned to play about a dozen characters each.
To call “Baskerville” a prop-opera would not be far-fetched, as it is the props and special effects that are the most entertaining and cleverly integrated features of this play directed with an eye for the fast and loose by Amanda Dehnert. If Holmes and Watson are on the lookout for clues, the audience is soon on the lookout for the next visual treat. The props are, indeed, the play’s most charming conceit. But they are no substitute in a comedy where funny happenings and clever word play are in short supply.
Nevertheless, the audience at the opening night performance I attended appeared to be delighted by all the prop-ery as it ascended and descended, rose and fell from the rafters, sprang forth from the floor boards, flew, glided, flitted, and fluttered about by way of trap doors as well as sprinted across the stage with glee-filled precision. Wild flowers, rabbits, butterflies, a steam train, and that “thing” that howls in the night serve as arresting diversions, as well as fodder for the mostly frenzied actors.
The art of en travestie has long been a favorite theatrical device as well as a useful gimmick as it is in this case. True, there is some fun to be had by seeing how fast Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, and Jane Pfitsch can change costumes and sex. But that bit of wizardry wears a bit thin when there is an over abundance of wink, wink, the double take, and the astonished freeze. Funny, nearly incomprehensible accents abound, as does the stealing of shtick from “Young Frankenstein.”
That stuff can only carry you so far when said shenanigans appear more amateurishly conceived than inventively conspired. I suspect that we can blame a director when a farce becomes tedious, and that is what happens long before that phosphorescent hound has met its fate. Familiarity with the original novel isn’t essential, but I can’t see how Ludwig turning Henry, the Canadian heir to the Baskerville fortune, into a twangy Texas cowboy is a change that serves a purpose or makes much sense.
Ludwig will probably never have to worry about becoming a successful playwright as his hilarious farce “Lend Me a Tenor” continues to be produced around the world. “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” as produced in association with Washington’s Arena Stage (where it previously played) is unfortunately not in the same league with either “The 39 Steps” (currently being revived in New York) in which four actors play characters, or “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” among the many classics of the gender-switching oeuvre made famous by The Ridiculous Theater Company. Ludwig’s opus will have to be summed up by my recalling a line of dialogue: “Avoid the moors at dusk at all cost.”
Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Sunday, March 29. $25 to $87.50. 609-258-5050 or www.mccarter.org.