Sherlock Holmes is sort of a jerk. And I’m pretty sure he’s always been that way.
This really isn’t news; you can look back on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and find Holmes as a bit snippy, at best, and a cocaine-addicted, verbally abusive borderline womanizer at worst. 21st century trivia: the title character of the medical TV show “House, M.D.” is based on Holmes, whose chief admirable quality is, of course, deductive reasoning, but the list sometimes begins and ends there.
If you accept this as your thesis — “Sherlock Holmes is a jerk” — it will make Off-Broadstreet Theater’s current double bill of one acts, “The Golden Spy” and “A World at War,” a much more pleasurable experience.
Princeton native Marvin Harold Cheiten’s adaptations, directed by Robert Thick, focus on Holmes and Watson in their early 60s, in the first few decades of the 20th century. A beguiling English spy (Lauren K. Brader) falls into their lives amidst an entanglement with German aristocracy. There’s a little bit of banter, a secret identity revealed, a double-cross, a double-double cross, and a few shots fired for good measure. Then, we’re on to our second play of the evening, involving the same spy a few years later; amidst the Great War, we have a murder plot and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
It’s all frothy fun, if a bit wordy, and the gratuitous gunplay announces itself appropriately, just as our attention begins to wane a little. The actors and director all get that this isn’t “Masterpiece Theater” and approach their roles with indulgent, broad charm. Steve Lobis does double duty as a German henchman in act one and an American diplomat in act two and relishes in his ability to brandish a revolver with menace and a bad accent with even greater menace. Virginia Barrie’s Mrs. Hudson is all about chewing the scenery as crimes are revealed and bodies hit the floor, and it’s tremendously entertaining to watch her zeal in hamming up a supporting role. And the aforementioned Brader is a composite of poise and class, playing the as-scripted role of textbook shrinking violet-cum-femme fatale to a T.
Cheiten’s script doesn’t hold many surprises in its structure, and that’s okay. What’s sort of alarming, however, is the light in which we’re to look at Holmes in his twilight years. Under Cheiten’s pen, Holmes isn’t so much a renowned detective as a little bit Batman, a little bit James Bond, a liberal dose of Algernon Moncrieff from “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and just a smidge of Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In the course of the plays’ two hours, we watch Holmes relish in the parlor-room revealing of two different sets of cads, save a character from a vehicular homicide while dressed as a beggar in a foreign country, reminisce with Watson in a mixture of nostalgia and subtle homoeroticism, murder an unarmed man in cold blood (!), serve as a willing accomplice in the deaths of innocents aboard the sunken Lusitania (!!), and venture into a romantic relationship with a woman 40 years his junior (!!!).
Like I said before, Sherlock Holmes is a jerk. The above list, though, takes this to a whole new level. Actor Steve Decker does his best with the part, but it could be a challenge for the audience to combine all of these disparate infractions into a whole, likable character.
Ultimately missing from the evening is Holmes’s ability to wield deductive reasoning as a weapon. He uses it here and there to pick out a wayward accent or minute detail, but this production is far less about the mystery-solving skills of Holmes than the thriller-style twists and turns of the plot.
I realized something as I was leaving the theater — and there are spoilers in this paragraph, so if you’d like to avoid them, please skip on to the end: Our erstwhile female spy is supposedly en route to England from America aboard the Lusitania, which is sunk when Germans get word she’s a passenger and choose to torpedo the boat. However, Holmes deduces this in advance and has her take a Swedish ship the day before, ensuring she will be safe, and that the Germans will be stymied. Okay, this allows for a great reveal as she steps out from behind a closed door, waving a pistol around, right after we’ve all assumed her death at the bottom of the Atlantic. The trouble here is that Holmes — playwright Cheiten’s Holmes, that is — thus allowed an entire ship to sink, resulting in the deaths of almost 1,200 people. Perhaps there might be a better way to resolve this issue than allowing over a thousand people to drown, Sherlock?
No worries, though. It’s all a bit of mindless fun, like a decent summer beach novel. Come in with the right state of mind, accept that Holmes is somewhere between a fop and a lecher, and have yourself a piece of cheesecake. You’ll leave happy.
“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Sunday, June 5. “The Golden Spy” and “A World at War,” written by Marvin Harold Cheiten of Princeton featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Actors include Lauren Brader, Steve Decker, Curtis Kaine, and Virginia Barrie. $25 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.