Elementary, I Fear

If English mysteries are your cup of tea, you might want to sample Sherlock's Last Case, now being served up at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. Charles Marowitz' script, a revisionist take on legendary detective character Sherlock Holmes, borrows characters and situations from the classic series of whodunits penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This revival (the play was produced on Broadway in the 1980s) fits neatly with artistic director David Arisco's twin penchants for English-themed farces and murder mysteries, following a production strategy that brought last year's diffident Murderer and this season's difficult Comic Potential. Those looking for an intriguing mystery may find it with this Sherlock and not in places one might expect. The story is more a character study than a spine-tingling thriller, but the larger questions this production raises about the playhouse itself makes for a real puzzle.

Taking up where Conan Doyle left off, the play is set in the late Victorian era as Holmes and his ever-present sidekick, Dr. Watson, laze about their digs at 221B Baker St., London. As in many a Holmes tale, a mysterious letter arrives. This one is from Simeon Moriarty, the son of the detective's archenemy, who vows vengeance against Holmes for his father's death. Soon after, a lovely young woman, Liza, Simeon's sister, arrives, anxious to prevent a showdown. Goaded into action, Holmes and Watson head for a dungeonlike cellar intent on surprising his new antagonist. But there, Holmes meets a whale of a surprise that brings down the first act with quite a splash.

What follows in the second act ought not to be revealed too fully but has to do with whether Holmes is alive or dead, leaving Watson to deal with a series of imposters (one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to Holmes) and a gun-wielding intruder who may or may not be yet another son of the sinister Moriarty. These new characters and situations should make for an even wilder second half than the first, but what ought to be is not always what is. That is certainly the case with Sherlock's Last Case. More a psychological study than a suspense thriller, the story loses dramatic altitude as it goes along, settling at last into a finale that's final but not very smart.

The prolific and multitalented Marowitz, who has enjoyed a long career as playwright, critic, director, and educator, seems a throwback to an earlier era, when George Bernard Shaw and Herbert Beerbohm Tree slipped from one discipline to another with masterful ease. His experiments with Shakespearean text, in productions and publications in America and in Europe, continue to be influential. Here, he uses the mystery thriller for his own purposes, to explore the core Holmes/Watson relationship that drives each and every one of the original stories yet remains largely unexplored in any of them.

In this, the Actors' Playhouse production succeeds. As Holmes, Heath Kelts at first seems off the mark, a WASPish, irritable fussbudget, more easily hoodwinked than he would care to admit. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Kelts is spot-on with Marowitz' vision of the role. He first lights into the sturdy Mrs. Hudson (Lisa Morgan), insisting that a sudden trip to Scotland on a family emergency be taken without pay and exploding with frustration when she has forgotten to refill a sherry decanter. He is similarly domineering with the long-suffering Watson, whom he explicitly regards as hopelessly ordinary, as comfortable and dependable as the furniture. Marowitz' Holmes, while still the classic aesthete and brilliant puzzle-solver, is at basis a petty bully, browbeating all around him.

Kelts does a fine job with this revisionist characterization, and he's well-matched with Ken Clement's stolid Watson, who keeps his slow-burning resentment buried. Kelts and Clement bring several layers of emotional texture to this classic detective duo, engaging in a struggle of personalities, sometimes covert, sometimes quite explicit. The rest of the supporting cast, Bob Rogerson as Inspector Lestrade and Claire Tyler as the illusive Liza, is also in top form. Production values are similarly superior, but that's certainly no mystery at this theater.

Mary Lynne Izzo's costume designs, with rich brocades and muted colors, add another layer of emotional texture and period charm. Scenic designer Gene Seyffer has a field day with his huge, detailed sitting-room set, which is crammed with Victorian bric-a-brac and an array of Holmesiana that ought to please even the most rabid devotee. Nailed to one wall is the famous Persian slipper, where Holmes stores pipe tobacco. On a chalkboard are the little cryptographic stick figures from The Adventure of the Dancing Men (if you can decipher the message in code, you will learn the secret of the plot).

In fact, the production is riddled with little Holmesian in-jokes and puzzles, which crop up even in the cast biographies in the program. But while such arcane touches will delight the trivia buffs, it's too bad this Sherlock doesn't have more dramatic substance. Overall, this is a terrific production of a less-than-terrific play.

Which gives rise to the real mystery.

Why doesn't Actors' Playhouse offer material that matches its capabilities? The company has found a real groove with its presentation of musicals. But in its straight-play selection, Arisco and company look like an all-star basketball team making a series of slam dunks on a basket that's set at five feet high. Maybe big-cast classics are out of the question. Maybe serious modern drama is too. But there are elevated, thoughtful comedies that could prove both economical and popular. Are Wilde or Shaw or Coward not to be seen on major South Florida stages? Only companies with strong audience bases, significant production resources, proper facilities, and creative personnel can rise to the challenge of great plays. Actors' Playhouse enjoys all of these advantages. It may not be the playhouse's job to deliver such works, but if not, who will?

Sherlock is not the only game afoot at the playhouse. Younger playgoers and their families might want to head upstairs to the company's balcony theater, where a new musical for children, Miss Nelson Is Missing, continues its world-premiere run. Miss Nelson, written by Joan Cushing and based on a popular book by Harry Allard and James Marshall, is the winner of the playhouse's National Call to Competition for musicals aimed at young audiences and headlines the company's National Children's Theatre Festival. The production is crisply staged by AP Children's Theatre director Earl Maulding and features a cast of professional actors. Miss Nelson centers on a classroom of unruly elementary school students who don't mind their kindly teacher, Miss Nelson. But when she suddenly disappears and is replaced by a tyrannical substitute teacher, they go on a quest to bring Miss Nelson back.

The festival kicked off with a Family Festival Fun Day, which featured two performances of Miss Nelson plus dance, puppetry, and storytelling performances; classes in acting and makeup; a free breakfast; and all sorts of kid-friendly activities. For ten dollars, the well-produced event was easily one of the best entertainment bargains of the year.

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Ronald Mangravite