"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of a man can invent." This Sherlock Holmes quote is a perfect description for the mystery play at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre - at least in terms of the lives of those on-stage. Just when you think things cannot get any crazier and the coincidences cannot get more coincidental, Ken Ludwig's script shows you otherwise. The Game's Afoot is a comedy with a mix of nutty characters and a whodunit theme, and while it was clear that the cast was still getting comfortable with each other and the script during Thursday's dress rehearsal, there were improvements in energy and confidence by the second act.
The play begins with William Gillette, a famous actor on-stage at the high point of his career, being shot by a gunman in the audience. But he lives, and subsequently invites members of his cast and other theatrical acquaintances - including a notorious critic - to his Connecticut mansion for Christmas Eve, with the aim of finding out who pulled the trigger. From here, the craziness ensues.
Gillette, who is also a Sherlock Holmes admirer, is played by Tom Naab, who fully embodies the role of a confident, put-together leading man. Always natural and calm, Naab was the major stand-out in this production, and I loved the moment in the second act when he added a cape and a curved pipe to his ensemble as he paced, obviously playing up the vibe of Holmes. His mother Martha, portrayed by Stephanie Naab, was also clearly an experienced performer, and treated us to a formal, wealthy air and absolutely perfect diction. Her scenes after Martha takes a few too many sleeping pills are particularly enjoyable.
Bryan Lopez brings a beaming yet simultaneously dim-seeming personality to the house as Simon Bright, the new husband to Molly McLaughlin's Aggie Wheeler. Along with Drew Pastorek and Terri Nelson as another invited married couple, McLaughlin rolls well with the script's more obvious bits of humor, but they all also have several moments of one-dimensionality. Lindsay Schnell plays the arrogant theatre critic Daria Chase with a teenager's attitude, and delivers a sufficient performance given that The Game's Afoot is her acting debut; Daria is easy to despise and you will, no doubt, laugh at her fate. But while the acting chops appear to vary quite a bit among the cast members, Wendy Czekalski comes out on top. She plays the harebrained inspector who shows up at the mansion to help (or rather "help") in finding the murderer, and Czekalski is polished and sure of herself, exuding a lovely nerdy charm.
Steve Parmley does a fine job of lighting the Playcrafters stage, and the scenic design and set pieces create a perfect atmosphere for this one-locale wonder, with lovely details such as a secret room, glass drink table, and some dangerous wall hangings. Director Cindy Ramos-Parmley has also obviously polished the show's slapstick bits to a "T," bringing perfect timing to a second act that could have easily been a mess.
In general, the laughs come more from the show's physical comedy than from whatever wit the actors bring to it, especially regarding that secret room that creates quite the uproar. The main problem is that neither the twist ending, nor the plot itself, is ever too difficult to figure out. Playcrafters' The Game's Afoot is fun enough to watch, but ultimately a silly version of Clue. Was it the naïve elderly mother? Was it the ditsy inspector? The answer to the whodunit didn't quite fulfill my expectation, but please - don't kill the critic.
The Game's Afoot runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through November 22, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 or visiting Playcrafters.com.