Among the small elite of well-regarded interpreters, it is Basil Rathbone who is probably most fixed in the minds of film goers as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed19th-century detective. But for theatergoers with good memories, it is Paxton Whitehead who placed his own indelible imprint on the role of the amusingly condescending know-it-all British sleuth. Twenty years after appearing as Holmes on Broadway in Paul Giovanni’s "The Crucifer of Blood," Whitehead is once again playing the

illustrious pipe-smoking, violin-playing, clue-meister in Hugh Leonard’s "The

Mask of Moriarty."

In the role of Holmes, Whitehead gives a splendid impression of Baker Street’s most famed resident. This may stem from the fact that Whitehead created the role in this play for the Williamstown Theater Festival back in 1994. Now Whitehead and company are at Paper Mill Playhouse, following a six-week run at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. (The show moves next to the Stamford Center for the Arts in Connecticut).

Playwright Leonard, who has turned out over 30 stage plays, including the Tony Award-winning "Da," is apparently out for sport rather than for suspense. As such, his tongue-in-cheek rendering of a Holmes adventure is not prescribed for those who relish an evening of sober deductive reasoning. This is, in fact, a veritable feast of corny cliches. Notwithstanding Leonard’s floridly dispensed bon mots ("an enviable flair for repartee"), and flagrantly dispelled red herrings (a hunchback named Herring is classified "an everyday innocuous sinister family retainer"), the plot is about as labored as the fog machine.

Would that "The Mask of Moriarty" were even half as good as "The Crucifer of Blood." Leonard’s faux thriller cum spoof, although it has been produced with a lavishness that begs applause, is not nearly as entertaining as it strives to be. Mostly silly without being funny, and too often inane without being clever, "The Mask of Moriarty" can only be commended for its almost impenetrable

disguise as a comedy.

Director Nicholas Martin, who does a keen job of making nothing seem important, can also be commended for having the curtain lowered between set changes long enough for some in the audience to get a little shut-eye or go over their shopping lists.

A favorite at the Paper Mill Playhouse, who played the principal provocateur in two Ray Cooney farces ("Two Into One" and "Out of Order"), the reliably amusing Whitehead delectably affects a tone of arrested drollery to offset Holmes’ august pomposity. Whitehead’s performance almost succeeds in salvaging the play’s carnage of a plot.

Leonard’s mucked-up mock-up of a send-up begins on a fog enveloping evening on Waterloo Bridge. Here a boob of a bobby (Julian Gamble) is confronted with "murder," the cry coming from Alice (Elizabeth Roby), the devoted maid of Gwen (Susan Knight), a visiting American lady. This, as Alice suddenly falls dead at their feet.

It will take nothing less than the artful deductions of Holmes to discover what could have caused Alice’s demise. Dr. Jekyll, who just happens by on his nightly prowl, does not mislead us. But you may ask, as Holmes does, whether it might not be Holmes’ brilliant arch-enemy and most dastardly nemesis and thought-to-be-dead Dr. Moriarty (Jack Leonard) who is, by a series of obscured but keenly observed clues somehow involved. For real involvement, however, it is Holmes’ ever-so-lightly contemptuous consideration of Scotland Yard police inspector Lestrade (David Pittu), and Holmes’ wholehearted devotion to his perennial sidekick Dr. Watson (Tom Lacey), that are the pulse of this comedy. Kudos to Lacey for the artful graces he discreetly employs "en travestie."

But leave it to set designer James Joy to create some eye-opening laughs. Of course there’s the densely designed, book-strewn Baker Street study, but there are laughs to be found also in the secret passages of an old castle’s family crypt where the lights flicker every time Dr. Moriarty’s name is mentioned.

Be prepared for lines like "Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me." The one line that made me laugh aloud comes in the opium den when the hostess Lily (Henny Russell), who carries about a picture of Dorian Gray as a romantic memory, remarks "I’m Eurasian" and receives the response, "And I’m your Englishman."

Particularly arresting are Jon Patrick Walker as "a young gentleman of quality" and Julian Gamble as the landlord of a notorious den of vice and nameless aberrations, who must answer the phone with, "Table for three? Okay gov’ner (pause) Whitman." Off in the corner sits Methylated Mary (played by Roby) who has the distinction of being passed over by Jack the Ripper, whom we discover was not Prince Albert but Queen Victoria. That bit of inside information won’t

spoil the play’s "elementary" denouement, if you’re still awake.

The Mask of Moriarty, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $32 to $47; students $10. To February 15.

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