‘Baskerville,’ new Sherlock Holmes play at McCarter, is appropriately ingenious

Lucas Hall and Gregory Wooddell play Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes, respectively, in "Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery," at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through March 29.

Lucas Hall and Gregory Wooddell play Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, respectively, in “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through March 29.

This Sherlock Holmes doesn’t scowl. Or, if he does, it’s only for comic effect, with a mischievous laugh soon to follow.

“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” which is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through March 29 (for ticket information, click here), reinterprets the famous Holmes novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” as a breezy romp. Playwright Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) has come up with a clever new twist on Holmes, and director Amanda Dehnert and five hard-working actors have brought it to vivid life.

This new play — a co-production with the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C., that premiered at the Mead earlier this year — is, in the spirit of the current Broadway hit “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” a dark story, cleverly and humorously told, and ingeniously staged.

Indeed, the most striking thing about this production is its staging. While Gregory Wooddell plays Holmes and Lucas Hall plays Dr. Watson, the three other actors (Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn, Jane Pfitsch) divide a few dozen parts among them. They are constantly changing costumes in seconds, offstage, or, in a few instances, right in front of your eyes. Furthermore, there are lots of short scenes in lots of different places, so there are a lot of scene changes to be made, without visible stagehands intruding on the action. A hat, or an umbrella, will come flying out of the wings and into a character’s hands, or a needed chair will roll out; flowers, or a window, will drop down from above. Steam shoots up from below when the story moves to a train station; a paper butterfly flutters around in a field.

All this creates a magical world that echoes the magical mental talents of Holmes himself. You fear it all may turn chaotic, but it never does; all the pieces, somehow, come into place smoothly.

Wooddell almost makes Holmes seem like a cocky adolescent, giddy about his ability to discern the truth when everyone else just feels confusion. Hall plays Watson more traditionally, as the stolid straight man amid a sea of wacky characters. And Stanley Bahorek, Michael Glenn and Jane Pfitsch are simply phenomenal; if you didn’t know there were just three of them beforehand, you might think it impossible for them to be playing all the parts that they do.

Each little part, by itself, might not be all that remarkable. But taken together, they add up to a small army of British eccentrics, and steal the show.

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