The set-up: In Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, playwright Jeffrey Archer has borrowed his central character, Sherlock Holmes, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and much of his plot from The Suicide Club, a thriller by Robert Louis Stevenson, creating a mystery for the stage, with the setting London in 1914.
Sherlock Holmes, in a despondent mood of existential angst, learns of a Suicide Club in a chance encounter, and becomes a member. The rules are that members meet to draw lots - not straws, but billiard balls, with the white one a pass, while the black one selects the victim, and the red one determines who is to be the executioner, for the would-be suicide does not die by his own hand. The execution: This intriguing premise is given a polished production by the Alley, complete with turntable to facilitate scene changes, a judicious use of fog - it is London - and skilled actors to carry us through a narrative that begins strongly, including Todd Waite as Holmes in a striking performance - Waite also portrayed Holmes at the Alley in 2003 and 2009. The script does not provide Waite with the authority of Basil Rathbone, but Waite carves out his own version of the great detective, and is consistently interesting and believable.
Josie de Guzman plays the Club Secretary, who handles the lottery, and contributes a compelling performance and also some dramatic surprises in Act Two. Sidney Williams plays Dr. John Watson, and delivers the requisite hero worship and naivete, but I did miss the bumbling charm of Nigel Bruce in the films - comparisons may be unfair, but playwright Archer must have known they would be inevitable. Jay Sullivan portrays Nikita Starlov, a Russian prince, and convinces us that he is of the blood royal, and also of his infatuation with Christiane, played by Elizabeth Bunch, who gets to wear some stunning costumes by Alejo Vietti.
James Black plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother and an important figure in the British secret service, and finds the humor and power in a stiff-upper-lip role. He plays multiple roles, as do Alley stalwarts Jeffrey Bean and James Belcher, who are excellent. The effort is directed by Mark Shanahan and Geoffrey Boyd, and they have found in Act One just the right tone, a mixture of dry wit and understated gravitas that is delightful.
In the second of the two acts, the charm gets lost in a blur of too many meetings on, or under, Thames bridges, too many corpses (though there may be fewer than you think), and too much international machinations and plottings. There is a vivid vignette set in a chemist shop, newspaper clippings loom large, two anagrams involve Mycroft, magic acts take center stage, and a cemetery serves for one of several denouements.
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All this serves to obscure the fact that Holmes has neither an antagonist worthy of his stature nor a real paradox to resolve. The suspense here is not to solve a case, but rather to uncover what is going on, for all is not what it seems. There is no single dramatic "Aha!" but rather foothills of "Oh's".
In one of the wrap-ups, considerable time is spent explicating the intricacies of the billiard-ball lottery, and this segment is the low point, as it is utterly unconvincing. This is the fault, not of the Alley, but of playwright Archer, whose invention failed him at this point. But the fun continues even after the charm has fled, for Archer means to entertain us rather than to mystify us, and, thanks to this deft, fast-paced production, he has succeeded.
The verdict: A polished production with excellent acting provides consistent interest, and extensive humor and a brisk pace carry us past the hurdles of a complicated plot into the safe harbor of pure entertainment.
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club continues through June 23 at the Hubbard Stage of Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.