"The Game's Afoot" got mixed reviews in its original production in Cleveland last December. Some critics said it was incredibly suspenseful. Others said it was absolutely hilarious.
Asolo Repertory Theater's associate director Greg Leaming didn't see that production, in Cleveland last year, but he read the script.
"I loved it," he said. "I thought it would a perfect show to end the season."
Leaming is directing "The Game's Afoot," which opens this weekend.
A those reviews suggest, it's equal parts murder mystery and farce. It's fast-paced and pokes merciless fun at the egotistical theater people who are its dramatis personae, but at the same time it delivers (according to the Cleveland critics) gasp-inducing plot twists and genuine intrigue.
Its main character is William Gillette, a real-life person who was the foremost American actor of his day, around the turn of the 20th century. He made a career out of adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's novels for the stage and portraying Sherlock Holmes.
Gillette became very wealthy and built a mansion in Connecticut called Gillette Castle that still stands, and is full of what were at the time very high-tech accoutrements.
Playwright Ken Ludwig, who's best known for "Lend Me a Tenor" but has a long string of Broadway hits and awards, transports Gillette in his prime from Victorian times to the 1930s. (The real-life Gillette died in 1937.) Gillette in the play has been shot and wounded in the last scene of a Sherlock Holmes play, and then invites his co-stars to his mansion while he recuperates.
One of them is murdered, and one of the other guests has to be the murderer. Thus the whodunit aspect of the play, led by an ersatz Sherlock Holmes, begins.
None of this ever happened to the real William Gillette, of course, and the audience doesn't need to know anything about Gillette to appreciate the play.
Theater buffs may have an advantage, though. Brian Torfeh, who plays Gillette in the Asolo production, said Ludwig's lampooning of haughty actors is spot-on.
"Through the whole play, they're quoting Shakespeare, because they've all played Shakespeare and it's part of their youth," Torfeh said. "We all do that, and we do it a lot."
That, along with the originality of the script, has made the rehearsal process a lot of fun for the actors, Torfeh said. Even after weeks of repeating the same lines endlessly, the jokes haven't become stale for the cast.
"What makes it exciting is that we're still making each other giggle," Torfeh said.
The fact that the script is so new and almost no one involved in this production has seen it before also helps, Leaming said.
"I don't think I would have wanted to see it," he said. "It's been so much fun imagining that we're doing it for the first time and inventing all this."
Details: March 29-May 12, Asolo Repertory Theatre's Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Tuesday evening shows 7:30 p.m., all other evening shows 8 p.m., matinees 2 p.m. Tickets: $57-$73. Information: www.asolo.org or 941- 351-8000.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.