'The Game's Afoot' A Witty, CT-Set Mystery, Comedy At Ivoryton

The Ken Ludwig landslide starts here, with "The Game's Afoot" at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Numerous productions of the playwright's comedies are scheduled for Connecticut stages this theater season. There are big-deal productions of "Baskerville" at the Long Wharf Theatre and "Murder on the Orient Express" at Hartford Stage, both in February, the same month that the community-based Suffield Players is doing one of Ludwig's best-known works, "Moon Over Buffalo." There's another "Game's Afoot" next month at the Warner Theatre in Torrington. To name a few.

"The Game's Afoot" is also the first of two shows this month set in Gillette Castle, the historic East Haddam landmark built by the world-famous Connecticut-rooted actor William Gillette. The other Gillette-set show is "A Connecticut Christmas Carol," Nov. 17 through Dec. 24 at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.

The Ivoryton Playhouse, just across the Connecticut River from Gillette Castle, is making the most of this local connection. They have painstakingly created a set that resembles a large room and staircase from the castle and gush about how impressed the actual castle's staff was with their handiwork.

Ludwig's play is less observant of the Gillette legacy. It plays fast and loose with history and is fast and loose in general. As visitors to the real Gillette Castle know, the building was constructed between 1914 and 1919.

"The Game's Afoot" takes place, inexplicably, in the mid-1930s, when Gillette would've been in his 80s and his elderly mother — another character in the play, played here by a delightfully dithery Maggie McGlone-Jennings — had been dead for more than 40 years. It pretends that the castle has been around for just six months at a time when it had existed for three and half decades.

The play's mystery begins when Gillette is shot while onstage performing in his most famous role, Sherlock Holmes. In reality, the only time Gillette was "shot" onstage was when "Sherlock Holmes" was made into a silent movie in 1916.

But historical inaccuracies amount to nothing in a show in which everyone onstage is considered a likely suspect to murder each other. When some of them do become victims, they don't stay dead.

It is a dark and stormy December night when Gillette (Craig MacDonald, grand and goofy) invites his actor friends — plus an enemy, acerbic theater critic Daria Chase (clearly based on Dorothy Parker and played wryly Beverley J. Taylor) — to his lavish home for a weekend of holiday cheer. Gillette's arm is still in a sling from the shooting incident several weeks earlier, and he is keen to know who shot him.

But before long there are worse crimes to worry about. The comedy comes from the cover-ups, the consternation and the too-cool way everyone deals with being stuck in a house with a murderer.

The dialogue consists of bon mots, withering putdowns, snappy patter and bloodcurdling screams.

After a murder, Felix's wife Madge (Katrina Ferguson, in a gorgeous black gown and a hideously underwritten role) deadpans: "I guess this means we won't be exchanging presents tonight."

Daria Chase, feared dead, is described thus: "She was ruthless. She was evil. She was a theater critic, for god's sake."

There's a lot of verbal wit, but most of the laughs come from the disposal of bodies and other physical shtick.

There's fun to be had here, especially by the cast, most of whom have worked at the playhouse before. The Connecticut references help a lot, but it's the rural charm of Ivoryton that makes this cheesy mystery go down easy.

THE GAME'S AFOOT — directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, is at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Nov. 19. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. $50, $45 for seniors, $22 for students and $17 for children. 860-767-7318 and ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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