We all love a good classic mystery, the kind of cozy whodunnit in which one of the biggest challenges of life — solving a murder — becomes, happily, a cerebral problem of mere deduction, in the style of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.
Ken Ludwig’s 2012 The Game’s Afoot, which runs at Very Little Theatre through June 22, takes that comfortable genre and winds it into a fast-moving comedy with a touch of farce.
Set at the height of the Great Depression in 1936, the story opens with a play within a play, in which we’re introduced to veteran actor William Gillette, played with warm authority here by Michael Walker.
Gillette has made his fortune and built himself a Connecticut mansion by acting for decades as Sherlock Holmes in a play he wrote — with, he notes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s permission.
As the cast members of Sherlock Holmes take their bows, though, a shot rings out — and Gillette collapses on stage, wounded.
Cut to scene two in that Connecticut mansion, a veritable Bat Cave of 1930s-appropriate gadgets. A secret room! An intercom! “This is where God would live if he could afford it,” snarks house guest Simon Bright, played here with perfect youthful insouciance by Matt Arscott.
Amid all this techie splendor Gillette, recovering nicely from his bullet wound, is hosting an intimate Christmas Eve party for his fellow Sherlock cast members. As the guests arrive, he begins to investigate his own shooting.
Directed by Chris Pinto, The Game’s Afoot — which has lost its usual subtitle, “Holmes for the Holidays,” this being June — is solid throughout, drawing laughs at every turn for jokes both obvious and subtle.
The dinner party turns more serious when the guests discover that Gillette has also invited the acerbic critic Daria Chase, who has panned every single one of them in print, to the soiree. Chase is played here by Erica Towe, whom we saw just last month as the daughter in Proof, which was staged in VLT’s smaller Stage Left.
Towe is a wonder as Chase. The role as written seems to describe a graying woman of bitter personality. With her rubbery face and genius for physical comedy, Towe turns the vicious critic into the catalyst for belly laughs.
Tom Wilson is perfectly dry as Felix, and Jen Ferro draws huge laughs as Inspector Goring. The cast also includes Carol Massahos as Martha, William Gillette’s mother; Heather Hinz as Madge; and Sabrina Gross as Aggie.
The set, by Michael Walker, is simple but effective, with just enough Art Deco references to give us a sense of time and place.
The Game’s Afoot continues June 13-16 and June 20-22 at Very Little Theatre. Tickets at The VLT.com.