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First looks are often deceiving, as proven by “The Game’s Afoot” at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. The comedy-mystery play begins with overemotive actors and underwhelming set design, jumping from murder to romance and seemingly introducing an excessively hasty performance — until the characters reveal that the scene is a play-within-a-play, a deliberately ridiculous prologue to the show.
The rest of the performance contrasts with the first scene, but not for the better. It features underemotive actors and overwhelming visual design, and it struggles with insufficient haste. Playwright Ken Ludwig’s typically farcical comedy and murder mystery thriller, “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays,” focuses on William Gillette, a character famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes as a stage actor, and the guests at his Christmas party. Directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr., Lyric Stage’s “The Game’s Afoot” fails to deliver its promise of a “laugh-out-loud” show, largely due to pacing difficulties. The play needs to move quickly, but Lyric Stage’s production drags.
“The Game’s Afoot” is not Ludwig’s best work, but it has potential to entertain due to its cleverness, wit, and humor. However, Lyric Stage does not reach this potential. William’s mother, Martha (Sarah Sinclair) is intended as a funny character, but Sinclair’s interpretation of old age embraces grayness a bit too much, resulting in slow line delivery that loses its comedy. When two characters announce their marriage, Kelby T. Akin’s expression of dismay as the lead character, William, reads as overly gray and consequently ingenuine. By the time Felix (Remo Airaldi), a party guest, tickles a dead body, the attempt at comedy seems odd due to the gray stillness of preceding scenes. This overarching grayness continues throughout the play as its most notable quality.
“The Game’s Afoot” is written as a farce, so it begs for farcical performance — which includes verbal, physical, and emotional liveliness and speed — but Sullivan’s show suffers from lethargy. Despite a few fervent bits, the actors do not sustain the energy necessary to achieve the outrageous hilarity of a farce or the gripping hold of a thriller. The physical movements are not dramatic enough, the dialogue is not fast enough, and the stakes feel high, but not high enough. Awkward comedic timing prevents the jokes from landing well. The occasional heightened moments occur abruptly and drop immediately. Despite its twists and turns, the show feels devoid of action. These shortcomings cause the play to pass slowly, rendering it disappointingly dry.
Lacking speed and energy, Lyric Stage’s “The Game’s Afoot” falls short of farce. As a result, unrealistic acting performances hamper the show. When William speaks privately with a party guest, Aggie (Gabrielle McCauley), about their former relationship, the emotionally vulnerable dialogue begs for a nuanced portrayal of regret, love, pain, and longing — but Akin and McCauley convey superficial, strained, unspecific passion through one primary acting choice: whining. This scene does not present a unique issue; throughout the play, most of the acting performances feel underdeveloped and forced. If “The Game’s Afoot” succeeded in farce, it would not require convincing acting. Over-the-top choices would carry the show, and artificial acting would add to the amusement — but the slow, gray nature of Lyric Stage’s performance leaves the contrived acting performances unsupported, unjustified, and unfavorable.
However, “The Game’s Afoot” benefits from two key assets. Maureen Keiller portrays a refreshingly funny Daria Chase, a detested theater critic. With satisfactory comedic timing and grand stage presence, Keiller makes the imposing, self-important, rude Daria the most compelling character. Some of her comedic choices are unsuccessful, but most of them stand out as highlights amidst the dull show. Additionally, lighting design by John Malinowski enhances the central plot, a homicidal investigation. During a seance scene, a subtle blue wash fills the stage while a soft spotlight focuses on the party guests, engaging the audience in the suspense of contacting ghosts. Throughout the play, Malinowski accents the foreboding and shocking moments with beautiful yet fear-inducing instants of darkness with flickering light from the hanging candelabra, candles, and windows. The lighting design is the most riveting aspect of the murder mystery thriller.
While the lighting design works well, the other visual elements are unpleasantly brash. The costume design by Chelsea Kerl primarily relies on vibrant reds and greens in an effort to emphasize the Christmas setting of “The Game’s Afoot” — but the color scheme is heavy-handed, cheesy, and unattractive. The scenic design by Janie E. Howland is impressively intricate, and its abundant use of reddish wood could have created a charming ambiance — but the garish colors of the costumes and set only amplify one another, making the production’s aesthetic effect entirely too loud. Moreover, the blaring visual tones exacerbate the muted nature of the slow-paced show. For example, Aggie’s unappealing Christmas-plaid dress matches the Christmas-plaid tablecloth, and the attention-grabbing design emphasizes McCauley’s attention-dropping performance.
Lyric Stage’s “The Game’s Afoot” progresses at a sluggish pace, which is not only tedious and non-farcical, but also makes the other subpar elements even more detrimental to the show as a whole. “The Game’s Afoot” falls flat, and it will not make for an ideal Christmastime outing for audiences seeking raucous comedy and a rousing experience. The production has a couple of strengths — but they do not remedy the overall gray show.
“The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays” runs at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston until Dec. 17.
—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at email@example.com.
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