"Bullshot Crummond" is a comic-strip idea blown up to be a play. And while it would have been a funny comic strip, enlarging it so much beyond its natural size makes its sketchiness and faults very conspicuous.
A satire of the Bulldog Drummond detective stories, the show, now at Ford's Theatre, ran in London six years ago, well in advance of the current theatrical fashion for entertainment dating from the century's teens through '30s. But this is neither a revival of a play from that time nor a satire of life in that time - it is a satire of stories and movies of the period.
This means that it can deal in only the very broadest comic stereotypes - the bald Prussian villain with the monocle, the daffy English girl with the lisp, the fearless detective who can figure out an entire crim from a spot on one blade of grass, and so on. It is these caricatures that cannot pass for life-size characters.
The other scale problem is that what might be funny-tasteless done small becomes just tasteless. This is true of the many crotch jokes, which would not have been in a film of that time, anyway. And as for the jokes about physical and mental handicaps - those are just timelessly tasteless.
But a lot of energy and ingenuity has gone into this show, and there are some very funny bits. Although the principal actors are chiefly confined to one-joke parts, one actor, Mark Blankfield, does multiple parts at breakneck speed. His Carlton waiter, who gives long attention to centering the flowers on the table and, when the action starts, is determined to keep his icy facade even if it means running behind a screen to scream in pain after having his hair pulled, is a gem. There is a car-chase scene, using a cut-out car in which different characters pop up to indicate that it is first the lead car and then the pursuer, that is delightful. And a duel in which the combatants get stuck clicking away.
Alan Shearman, Ron House and Diz White, who play the detective, the villain and the heroine, are among the writers of the play. They would have better served themselves finding a play that displayed their comic acting, rather than putting together such simple parts and actions with nothing for them, as actors, to fill in.
BULLSHOT CRUMMOND - Through October at Ford's.