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Monday, June 18 News

Review: Not the most inventive, but ‘Baskerville’ serves up giddy fun at Long Wharf

As a playwright, Ken Ludwig has many wonderful qualities: He’s intelligent, charming and theatrically savvy. He’s incredibly well read in dramatic literature and has studied his favorite playwrights and filmmakers thoroughly. An unabashed Old Soul who likely keeps his TV tuned to TCM night and day, Ludwig flaunts his love of the past in his original plays “Lend Me A Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Shakespeare in Hollywood.”

Ludwig’s presence here today is due to his affinity for Arthur Conan Doyle, specifically his 1902 novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” one of his best-known Sherlock Holmes capers. Ludwig’s adaptation, “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” which continues through March 25 at Long Wharf Theatre, is a nifty example of Ludwig’s silliness, fondness for sight gags and playful love of words. It’s typical Ludwig, polishing up a dusty chestnut for an audience totally nuts about the mystery genre.

Yet, for all of his devotion to Doyle’s story, “Ludwig’s Baskerville” dolefully exposes Ludwig’s own lack of invention. This show will invariably suffer in comparison to “The 39 Steps,” the 2008 play adapted by Patrick Barlow, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film. Ludwig not only appears to capitalize on the coattails of that feisty, ingenious adaptation of Hitchcock’s suspenseful classic, but he gets caught picking its pockets in at least one instance.

Under Brendon Fox’s deftly paced direction at Long Wharf, “Ludwig’s Baskerville” retains Doyle’s story of Holmes (Alex Moggridge) and Dr. Watson (Daniel Pearce) arriving in dark, dank Devonshire to investigate a murder, a family curse and a menacing super-sized canine given to serenading the obscured moon in ominous tones. Doyle’s sleuthing duo encounters a large assortment of motley characters, red herring and hostile elements. The gimmick is that three supporting actors — Kelly Hutchinson, Christopher Livingston and Brian Owen — portray roughly 37 different characters in all. In the style of “Irma Vep” and numerous subsequent Velcro comedies, these three actors transition from one persona to another instantly. In one instance, Livingston, dressed as a grubby charwoman, becomes a Rococo dandy, fresh off the wrapping of a Three Musketeers bar, before our very eyes, thanks to costume designer Lex Liang’s cleverness.

As inspired as this parlor trick is, pretty much everything else looks recycled from “The 39 Steps,” or other plays of this ilk. The most egregious case of theft arrives toward the middle of the second act when Watson and Livingston trudge headlong into a presumably typically stiff wind through the moors. As both actors manually flap their coats in synch with sound designer Victoria Deiorio’s recorded storm effect to create the illusion of gale-force winds, any theatergoer familiar with “The 39 Steps” instantly recalls the bit as performed during that earlier play’s signature train-top scene. In “The 39 Steps,” the device is pure genius. Here, one cringes at Ludwig’s blatant thievery. It’s not as with “Lend Me A Tenor,” where Ludwig lovingly borrows from The Marx Brothers and any number of George Abbott Broadway farces 50 years gone by. That’s homage. This mimicry looks dishonorable, as a stolen device from a better, still-current hit play.

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Does such a trespass sink Ludwig’s ship? Not really. While fans loyal to “The 39 Steps” may resentfully endure the rest of “Ludwig’s Baskerville” as if forced to climb back into a wet bathing suit for another chilly hour at the beach, theatergoers unfamiliar with “The 39 Steps” laugh riotously at this scene because it is funny. What they don’t know won’t hurt Ludwig. I mean, c’mon! Look how long Milton Berle’s career lasted!

The other rub against the grain of 39 Steppers is that the Hitchcock film was adapted in such a manner that actors readily perform it seriously and without non-verbally commenting on their actions. In other words, the actors pursue their characters’ objectives in straightforward, poker-faced fashion, as if oblivious to the humor of the piece. “Ludwig’s Baskerville” differs in that the actors are not only aware of their comic context, but also go so far in some instances to sell the jokes like concession hawkers during intermission. The one genuine exception is that battling-the-breeze bit, where the actors play it as straight as if delivering a saint’s eulogy. In the absence of any wink or nod to the audience, it gets the biggest laugh of the performance.

It must be said three fine performers comprise Fox’s three-person ensemble. Specifically, Livingston’s manic behavior is disarmingly charming. Hutchinson, who draws the short straw on zany characters, nonetheless invests her subjects with full heart and soul, proving herself a fine actor. Owen, who has previously performed in this show with and without Fox, stands out for his fearless commitment to his characters regardless how demented. He is a physically imposing figure who can move as gracefully as a ballet dancer while delivering his lines in a booming, elastic voice. Indeed, he’s got a stage worthy Falstaff in him, as well as a Quasimodo, and perhaps even a Lear.

Oddly enough, the actors playing Holmes and Watson appear in service to the flexible trio playing in support of them. It’s simply the nature of the beast in “Ludwig’s Baskerville.” Moggridge is nothing like the lean, authoritarian, leading men of deep, seductive voices, such as Basil Rathbone of the old movies, or Paxton Whitehead, the contemporary gold standard for Holmes. The balding Moggridge comes across more like a pleasant character actor making the most of his leading role during his busman’s holiday from playing the fop. Yet his sense of spontaneity and command of the language render a credible, if nontraditional, Holmes. Pearce, with his unmanageable gray-white thicket and goatee, does a fine job as a Watson who, through much of the play, finds himself the primary detective on this case while Holmes reportedly works on another case closer to home on Baker Street.

Exactly how “Ludwig’s Baskerville” strikes one just might depend on one’s familiarity with previous shows of this genre. Either way, Fox and company put on a fast-pasted, giddy performance meant to lighten the burden of even the world-weariest theatergoer.

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