If you take the lofty view, "Sherlock's Last Case" will not go down in the books as one of the great, near-great or even semigreat plays. But there are times in the theater, as in life, when a less exalted view of things is called for. This is one of them.
Remember that we are in the midst of a particularly unpleasant summer. Do we want "Mother Courage" on top of it all?
"Sherlock's Last Case" is easy going for a couple of hours. It is clever, although not fiendishly so, and if it never transports you, it manages to amuse and distract periodically. Approach it with modest expectations and you'll be modestly entertained.
Opening a six-week pre-Broadway tryout at the Eisenhower Theater last night, it stars Frank Langella as the man in the deerstalker. Langella is a fine actor. That he tends to conjure up visions of Gore Vidal in the title role is not entirely accidental. He is playing a self-described "man of searing intellect and unbearable perceptions."
Sherlock Holmes is a known quantity these days and if you're going to bring him to the stage one more time, as author Charles Marowitz has done, there's not a whole lot of room for maneuvering. It is to be presumed that Holmes will go up against an implacable enemy; that at one point he will find himself in a corner from which there is no escape; and that, by means too clever for the rest of us mortals to predict, he will emerge victorious in the end.
Certain realities must be taken into account -- and not just the violin and the cocaine. Any play featuring the celebrated Baker Street sleuth is obliged to turn itself inside out every half hour. Gertrude Stein was wrong in this instance. A rose is not a rose is not a rose. More likely, it's a stalk of deadly nightshade in disguise.
You go into the theater knowing that you're not supposed to trust anyone and deem the evening a success if, so armed, you still fail to perceive the threat. This does not make for great dramaturgy. It makes for a kind of preordained ritual -- the basic rules of which are agreed upon in advance and can no more be altered than they can in a game of Monopoly.
Give Marowitz his due. He respects the territory. Without succumbing unduly to camp -- which is one way of retooling familiar goods -- he has come up with a new twist. And his twist has its psychological justifications. Holmes, he understands, is not the easiest person in the world to live with. Not only does the man effortlessly produce the solutions that elude everyone else, but by dubbing them "elementary," he could be said to rub salt in the wounds of those less perspicacious than he. No wonder he's got his detractors. The world's greatest detective is a Mr. Know It All.
Holmes' archenemy, Professor Moriarty, is dead by the time "Sherlock's Last Case" gets under way, but someone is still out to get him. No sooner has the bird in the cuckoo clock in his cluttered flat popped out, failed to announce the hour and then popped back in -- an omen if ever there was one -- than a sharp knock is heard at the door.
It is Professor Moriarty's long-lost daughter Liza (Melinda Mullins, dressed in virginal white, hence untrustworthy). Her crazed brother, it appears, wants revenge on Holmes, but her mission is reconciliatory. If, she reasons, her sibling could just meet Holmes and talk with him, maybe the past could be put to rest. Susceptible to her teary charms, not to mention her strawberry red hair, Holmes lets down his defenses and against the good, if typically timorous, advice of Dr. Watson (Donal Donnelly) agrees to a rendezvous. It takes place shortly thereafter in a dank cellar of an abandoned abattoir -- which is all you'll get from me.
You may well wonder, however, what a dentist's chair is doing in the basement of an abattoir.
"Sherlock's Last Case" is not so stylish an affair as the revival of "Dracula," which made Langella a matinee idol in the 1970s. There was a kind of grand opera lunacy to that endeavor, which, married to the fun-house thrills, resulted in a gloriously outsized evening. Director A.J. Antoon manipulates the circumstances in "Sherlock" deftly enough, but doesn't lift them to a higher plane. They probably can't be elevated all that high. Basically, what we're dealing with here are skeletons, rats, trussed-up bodies and beakers of sulfurous potions emitting wicked fumes. In short, Halloween.
Langella's Holmes is petulant, opinionated and temperamental. He likes his drugs, but he's not a slave to the seven-percent solution -- a popular view of the sleuth in the 1970s, which on the whole prized his drug habits over his keen intuition. Here, fine wine is just as much to his liking.
Langella accentuates the panache and the supremely confident ego -- at one point observing with the snippy hauteur of the offended aristocrat that the twin obsessions of the working class are "absenteeism and tardiness." He is supposed to be a bit insufferable, after all. Without divulging the evening's secrets, I can say that the script provides Langella with the opportunity to comment on his own performance, and he does so with wonderful goggle-eyed mischief.
Donnelly -- as Watson -- has the likable doggedness of the sidekick whose lot in life is always to be two steps behind the master in the ways of ratiocination. Still, he's no doormat, and in the crunch Holmes will come to look upon him with healthy respect. Mullins, in whom Victorian proprieties appear to be at war with a seductress' instincts, keeps you properly off guard. However, the old reliables -- Holmes' housekeeper (Helena Carroll) and Inspector Lestrade (Pat McNamara) -- don't contribute all that much in this instance beyond a kind of blustering vulgarity, calculated mainly, I guess, to exacerbate Holmes' nerves.
David Jenkins' two sets -- Holmes' flat and that forbidding cellar -- supply all the requisite nooks and crannies this sort of enterprise requires to ply its deceptions. And you get a fair quotient of rain, lightning and smoke -- special effects being a mandatory part of the formula that's being observed.
No doubt, there is a public for "Sherlock's Last Case," although whether it's to be found on Broadway is open to speculation. I suspect the play would be better off going directly into the summer stock repertory, where it will no doubt end up, whatever New York thinks. That is not meant as a put-down, merely a realistic appraisal of prospects.
"Sherlock's Last Case" is not a work for all seasons, but rather an antidote for July and August. What it has going for it is our perennial desire to escape the heat and outwit the humidity.
Sherlock's Last Case, by Charles Marowitz. Directed by A.J. Antoon. Sets, David Jenkins; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, Pat Collins. With Frank Langella, Donal Donnelly, Helena Carroll, Melinda Mullins, Pat McNamara. At the Eisenhower Theater, through Aug.1.