The Sherlock Holmes inspired play “Mysterious Circumstances” is itself a bit of mystery … but not in the way the Geffen’s Artistic Director Matt Shakman probably intended it.
“Mysterious Circumstances” is, in a way, Mr. Shakman’s debut at the Geffen as its newly installed Artistic Director. And the world premiere play is a Geffen commission, so this play is perhaps a hint of what the future holds artistically for the playhouse.
The play was inspired by a New Yorker story about Sherlock Holmes scholar Richard Green and it has the feel and structure of a typical10,000 word New Yorker piece. At it’s heart is the somewhat mysterious murder of our protagonist in his London apartment. That’s where we begin, like most good mysteries, with the dead body and the expectation of a whodunnit. But we don’t stay there long, instead like those New Yorker pieces, we flash back in time to understand how we got there - and there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Richard Green was a dogged collector and writer on all things Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not only did he have a book collection worth 4 million British pounds - he was searching out something of a holy grail for Sherlock Holmes fanatics: a rumored secret chest that contained unpublished stories and a autobiography by Doyle. To say that Mr. Green was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes is an understatement. We even see how a series of his first dates are derailed by his inability to talk about anything else.
The play also jumps back to 1894 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s life. We learn of his disdain for his own cheap detective stories, instead wishing to write about forgotten British history. We meet his exasperated agent and his terminally ill wife.
And, of course, this being a play about people mesmerized by Sherlock Holmes - we need to meet Sherlock and his trusty sidekick Watson.
The play is weaving together multiple storylines combining simultaneously the form of a New Yorker piece with a time shifting historical drama and a comedic mystery. It’s a lot.
And mostly, it really works.
The cast is wonderful and filled with LA actors. The set is something of an automated marvel, shifting locations and perspectives and just generally being impressive. And the direction is brisk and confident. We cover a lot of ground very quickly. It’s one of those plays where so much happens and there’s such a momentum driving forward that you get swept up with it.
Which leads us to the mystery: why isn’t the mystery itself more satisfying? Or, said differently, why is that this play which seems so good - leaves you a little empty at the end?
Part of that has to do with the play’s own aspirations: it wants to be much more than a whodunnit. But in trying to transcend the genre it short changes the drama.
Here’s a play that’s terribly ambitious, told by a group of artists who are really good at their craft - that in the end doesn’t pack the emotional punch or narrative satisfaction you long for.
Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.
Will it dazzle you? Maybe.
“Mysterious Circumstances” plays at the Geffen Playhouse through July 14th.