The world’s most famous detective pays North Hollywood a visit as The Group Rep presents Charles Marowitz’s delightful Sherlock’s Last Case as their end-of-year offering. Though not the inspired staging Actor’s Co-op gave us a few years back, director Larry Eisenberg and a talented cast offer Angelinos a crowd-pleasing comedy at a time when most L.A. stages are dark for the holidays.

149166_10151153274851325_1645009759_n A cross between spoof and homage, Marowitz’s clever tribute to Baker Street’s sleuth extraordinaire gives audiences plenty of reasons to chuckle, as when Holmes (understudy Doug Haverty) explains to ever-faithful Dr. Watson (Bert Emmett) exactly how he was able to deduce that a certain Guy Heatherington and Madame Neander are “one and the same person.” Responding to Watson’s comment that the women at the soiree they have just attended were all “preening themselves like jackdaws, as they always do,” Holmes corrects his unobservant friend. “All but one,” the detective points out. All but Madame Neander. “It was a pitiful boner on Heatherington’s part,” explains the supersleuth. “What woman who truly was a woman, would miss a chance of admiring herself in the glass? That, I fear was the fatal giveaway.” Hardly politically correct, but well worth a chuckle, and the laughs have only just begun.

68047_10151153278256325_202305109_n Holmes’ well-organized life is in for a shakeup when housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Hersha Parady) announces in sobs her desire to take time off from work to travel to Dundee to visit her ailing grandfather, a man she hasn’t heard a peep from in twenty years. “It’s confusin’ to have to morn someone you never even knew was alive,” she explains to her employer, who advises her to be philosophic. “If your grandfather is going to die, your bedside-lamentations will only provide irrelevant musical accompaniment.”

Pay attention to Mrs. Hudson’s absence. It’s a clue, but the only one which will be revealed here.

Holmes soon receives a cryptic hand-delivered letter, a warning from Simeon Moriarty, son of Holmes’ recently deceased arch-enemy Dr. Moriarty. “Balderdash,” exclaims Holmes upon reading it, then goes on to quote from the letter. “Hornet’s sting … cut his wing … Rubbish! And yet crystal clear in intent. It means, dear Watson, that within a very short period of time, only days perhaps, there is every likelihood that I shall be murdered.”

556857_10151153279326325_1284351803_n Not long after, the sleuth is paid a visit by Simeon’s sister Liza (Allison King), who offers to lead him to her brother in hopes of reasoning with the disturbed young man. Holmes lets himself be persuaded, as much by her beauty as by her logic, and she impulsively kisses him, only to be warned by the detective that “emotional effusions of that sort are the dry-rot that weakens the timber of masculine resolve.”

Yes, indeed, playwright Marowitz gives us plenty of reasons to laugh in Sherlock’s Last Case. The only one who should not be laughing is the great Holmes himself, for he will very soon find himself facing imminent death at the hands of …

There is a point beyond which any further synopsizing of Sherlock’s Last Case would be criminal, and that point has now been reached. Suffice it to say that the laughter, the surprises, and the suspense have only just begun.

I’m tempted to wish that The Group Rep had cast Holmes a couple decades younger, given not only Marowitz’s specification of a Sherlock “not a day over forty-three” (a line that’s been cut) but also Robert Downey Jr.’s recent reinvention of the role at almost exactly that age. Also, Mrs. Hudson’s belief that her grandfather might still be alive takes suspension of disbelief to a whole new level.

Still, there’s no quibbling with the talent onstage at the Lonny Chapman Theatre.

74725_10151153275826325_801876668_n Haverty not only looks the part of Holmes (perhaps even more so than the actor usually assigned to the role), he plays him with wit and charm, and an assurance that belies his understudy status. Burke is a hoot as the prissy, ever-stumped Inspector Lestrade and Parady gives us a deliciously dotty Mrs. Hudson in the grand Marie Dressler tradition. Best of all are a sensational Emmett, whose eternal frustration at being bested by Holmes is reflected in one priceless facial reaction after another, and the lovely, vivacious King, who plays Liza with oodles of verve and spunk. John Rumble and Austen Byrne complete the cast as (respectively) Sherlock Holmes Look-Alike and Damion Moriarty.

With a running-time of nearly two and a half hours, the very talky Sherlock’s Last Case could use a major trim, and barring that, a somewhat snappier pace than it’s given here, and one might wish that director Eisenberg had countered some of the play’s longer-winded scenes with more varied blocking choices. Also scene changes do tend to drag, something which Actors Co-op avoided by making them part of the evening’s entertainment. Finally, it’s disconcerting to see a character who’s been strapped in a “La Frontenac chair” and left for dead get up and exit in the seconds before intermission. (A total blackout would have preserved the illusion.)

Aside from one design goof, the Group Rep production looks and sounds great. Scenic designer Winfield has transformed the set seen recently as Ruth’s apartment in Collected Stories into a meticulously appointed replica of Sherlock Holmes’ Bakers Street digs, one which morphs quite cleverly into a dark, dank cellar when needs be.  Kim Smith’s expert lighting  Steve Shaw’s ingenious sound design and Emily Doyle’s mostly spot-on period costumes deserve kudos as well, the sole exception being a absurdly low-cut gown that Sherlock Holmes would never have allowed Mrs. Hudson to wear to meet Queen Victoria. (Would she even have been allowed into a Victorian Buckingham Palace with so revealing a décolletage?)

598545_10151153284806325_1052579820_n Drina Durazo is producer for The Group Rep in addition to designing the production’s special effect.s William Troy Whitaker is assistant director and Emily Doyle stage manager.

With most of L.A.’s theaters taking a vacation hiatus and not resuming production until mid-January at the earliest, avid playgoers in search of their weekly theater fix can rejoice in The Group Rep’s savvy late-December/early January programming choice. Though not without its shortcomings, Sherlock’s Last Case may well be Santa’s most welcome post-Christmas gift.

The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.  Reservations: 818 763-5990

–Steven Stanley
December 23, 2012
Photos: Sherry Netherland

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