Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Comic Stage Revision of Conan Doyle's
Also see Bob's review of Southern Comforts
It appears to have been inspired by its slightly older cousin, the 2005 British stage comedy version of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps which has achieved wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Both plays had developmental productions at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds prior to their West End productions.
Baskervilles is designed to be performed by a comedy troupe of three male actors, each of who plays one of the three Baskerville lead roles. The dozen or so other roles are portrayed by the trio, and each one portrays "himself" (actually the actor whom he is playing who bears his name). It was written by Steven Canny and John Nicholson with Nicholson's veteran English comedy stage troupe, Peepolykus, in mind.
Here in New Jersey, the three leading Baskerville roles are portrayed by Wynn Harmon as Sherlock Holmes, Gary Marachek in what he thinks is the lead role of Dr. Watson, and Rich Silverstein as Sir Henry Baskerville. As "themselves," they are three somewhat obtuse and preening provincial players who sometimes wreak havoc with the play as they break from their Baskervilles roles when they squabble, foul up, or, one of them simply decides that there is something that he has to say to another actor or to the audience.
As the play begins, Sir Charles Baskerville is on the moor near Baskerville Hall when he hears howling, wind, and other eerie night sounds. He is running in when he turns and sees a scary presence. He cowers in fright and raises his arms to ward off his attacker, only to be knocked to the ground. He clutches his heart and dies with an expression of fear contorting his face. Gary Marachek rushes on stage from the wings, and speaks, "Stop! Stop! Stop! Turn the lights up. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm extremely sorry to have to interrupt the performance. There should have been a safety announcement before the show began ..." And we are off to the races.
When we get back to the Baskervilles, we find that Holmes and Dr. Watson are intrigued by the case and a legendary curse involving a hellhound who has been seen on the moor seeking the blood of Baskervilles. Holmes and Watson meet with Sir Henry Baskerville, Sir Charles' nephew newly arrived from Canada ("I don't know how to do a Canadian accent"). Sir Henry is worried about a note which has been delivered to his hotel warning him to stay away from Baskerville Hall for his own safety, but is determined to go there. It is agreed that Watson will accompany Sir Henry there, and that Holmes will join them later. This frees Wynn Harmon (our Holmes portrayer) to portray the lion's share of the men and women of Baskerville Hall and its environs. It is amazing that Holmes' delay in arriving at Baskerville Hall is taken directly from the novel.
The funniest scene occurs just after the intermission when Wynn Harmon angrily tells us that he has discovered that a member of the audience ("Red Bank Larry 65") tweeted that his slow-paced performance had made the first act drag. Harman mockingly insists on repeating the first act to the tweeter's satisfaction. The trio then given us a first act redux, including fumbled and partial and muffed costume and wig changes, all in the space of about four minutes. It has been done before (most notably at the close of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor; Ludwig then did it again later to perk up the finish of his The Fox on the Fairway), but the only question to ask is "does it work and add to the evening's pleasure?". The answer is a resounding "yes." In fact, the clever manner in which, the rapid redux has been so well integrated into the play is pleasurable in and of itself.
The entire cast performs sharply to maximum comedic effect. Wynn Harmon finds the humor in Holmes' intensity and self congratulatory attitude without undermining the authority which his skills have earned him. Harmon's deliberately corny caricatures of the Baskerville suspects are right on target. Harmon portrays Baskerville Hall's servants, the butler Barrymore, and his Spanish femme fatale wife Mrs. Barrymore, as well as the mysterious, moor lurking Stapleton and his sister Cecile. Gary Marachek holds his own as a loyal Dr. Watson who is unaware that his observations are often quicker than those of Holmes, who manages to co-opt them. Rich Silverstein is in tune with his play mates, particularly scoring with the dose of cluelessness which he brings to the role of "himself".
Baskervilles has been written and directed so as to feel improvisational in its framing provincial theatre sequences. And there does appear to be room for the director and actors to improvise throughout in rehearsal. For example, pre-West End and in the West End, Holmes was played by Spanish actor Javier Marzan, and the intercepted tweet which angered him related to the alleged difficulty of understanding his Spanish accent.
As is often the case at New Jersey Rep, the scenic design and properties provided by Jessica Parks Paris is distinctive and enriches the production. For Baskervilles, Parks has design an evocative false proscenium framing a set which is designed to appear to be a stage setting. It includes various elements which detach and swing in from the basic set to delineate various locations.
Director Mark Shanahan has directed a difficult and complex comedy smoothly, and integrated the performance in which a manner which feels totally in tune with the light hearted, enjoyable silliness which Canny and Nicholson have brought to Baskervilles.
Shanahan was an understudy in the original Broadway cast of The 39 Steps, and has directed a number of touring and regional theatre productions of it. His acclaimed production for the George Street Playhouse opened the same weekend as his Baskervilles opened at New Jersey Rep. As noted above, Baskervilles emerged in Leeds as a follow-up to The 39 Steps. The lightly entertaining Baskervilles cannot live up to the expectations of anyone expecting to see a play with the brilliance, wit and physical complexity of Patrick Barlow's adaptation of The 39 Steps.
The entertaining and agreeable play within a play adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles should be winning over audiences in regional theatres, summer stock and community theatres for some time to come. It is in good hands for its New Jersey debut.
The Hound of the Baskervilles continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 PM/ Matinee.: Saturday 3 PM; Sunday 2 PM) through May 27, 2012, at the at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740 Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
The Hound of the Baskervilles adapted by Steven Canny and
John Nicholson from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by