After all these years, countless hours of watching Sherlock Holmes and Holmesian-like characters deduce the heck out of mysteries on TV and in film, in books and on stage, is it possible to tell yet another story, one that’s both true to the spirit of Conan Doyle and decidedly new and inventive? After seeing Jeffrey Hatcher’s Holmes and Watson, now playing at the Alley, the answer is a resounding yes.
Holmes and Watson picks up three years after the world’s most famous detective and the Lex Luthor to his Superman, Professor Moriarty, went over the falls at Reichenbach. Both were presumed dead, but because no bodies were recovered, a score of “frauds, fakes and charlatans” have since claimed to be the famed sleuth, with Watson having to debunk each one. The latest claim, however, from an isolated asylum on an island, is a little bit different. A Dr. Evans says that three of his patients – the only three patients in his entire asylum, as a matter of fact – claim to be Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s interest piqued, he travels to the island to investigate, and what he finds there is far from elementary.
Hatcher’s third foray into the world established by Arthur Conan Doyle (after Sherlock Holmes and The Adventure of the Suicide Club and a 2015 film, Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen) makes it readily apparent that he has a fundamental understanding of both the world and its characters. Holmes and Watson is very much in the spirit of Conan Doyle’s work, with enough that the casual fan will recognize and Sherlockians will appreciate.
Director Mark Shanahan’s production is tight and precise, balancing well the clever, suspenseful elements typical of a Holmes mystery with its great humor. Hatcher’s script is peppered with many well-timed jokes (and one great fake-out moment involving a gun that left the audience laughing with relief), with much of the play’s humor coming from the interplay between Jeremy Webb as Watson and Bruce Warren as Dr. Evans.
Webb is on stage navigating the strange world of the asylum and deducing for the audience for a majority of the play’s approximately 90-minute runtime, though he makes it appear effortless. He is both put-upon and assertive as Watson, and a good match against Warren, who’s Dr. Evans is secretive, a bit of a foil. Warren is particularly deft when asked to interact with both Watson in the present and the goings-on in a flashback, a moment that shows exactly how you make exposition dynamic.
Jay Sullivan is spot-on as the first potential Holmes, playing the self-assured intellectual we’ve come to expect. It’s quite the contrast with Dan Domingues, whose unhinged Sherlock is barefoot, skittish and straitjacketed (Domingues also does a sweet shoulder roll late in the play that deserves a mention) and Chris Hutchison’s strikingly silent but heavy presence on stage, as the third Sherlock who appears blind, deaf and mute. Noble Shropshire makes for a great Moriarty, and his Inspector character is just as fun. Elizabeth Bunch is delightful. And David Matranga stands out despite the briefest of appearances as the brusque, working class orderly.
It’s worth mentioning that each member of the eight-person cast plays more than one role in some way or another, sometimes while pulling double duty in a secondary role and sometimes after being unmasked as being not who they say they are. To keep from spoiling anything, I’ll just say that they all excelled, with kudos going to Hutchison and Matranga in particular for the range they show.
The play’s quasi-Gothic, 19th century tone is impressively realized by Scenic Designer Jim Youmans and Costume Designer David C. Woolard. It’s literally a dark and stormy night when Watson arrives at the asylum, and Rui Rita’s lighting designs, complimented by David Budries’s sound designs, make for both an ominous and deceptive environment. From the backdrop – continuously rolling seas, present but unobtrusive – to successfully evoking a fire on stage, the team successfully create a production that feels almost cinematic in its staging.
Part of the fun of any Sherlock Holmes story is trying to suss out the twist before someone deduces it for you on stage, but it might be best just to go along for the ride with Holmes and Watson. And what a ride it is. It’s got everything you can want from a Sherlock story – the mystery, the humor, and plenty of great reveals and about-faces to keep audiences well entertained.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26 to $89.