The Hound of the Baskervilles at Flat Rock Playhouse
One review of Flat Rock Playhouse’s 2010 production of The 39 Steps began, “If you can’t imagine Hitchcock as a hoot, you haven’t seen The 39 Steps.”
Substitute “Sherlock Holmes” for “Hitchcock” and update the play’s title, and the same sentiment fits the Playhouse’s new production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is a rapid-fire three-actor spoof of the Holmes mystery.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hit version of which debuted onstage in 2005, pioneered this kind of small-cast take-off, and the original production of this theatrical adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel followed in 2007, written by John Nicholson and Steven Canny. It was a hit on London’s West End, popular enough that yet another comic adaptation of Hounds debuted in England last year and just landed in London last month.
In case you didn’t already know that the British love nothing more than to make fun of their own cultural icons.
On the heels of the weighty Glass Menagerie and the country music showcase Pickin’ and a Grinnin’, this Flat Rock Mainstage show strikes a homey, elbow-to-the-ribs tone, with frequent addresses to the audience, some local punchlines (former Gov. Pat McCrory gets a guffaw) and the actors introduced as themselves — Larry Daggett, Preston Dyar and David Lind — and slipping out of character now and again to comic effect.
The three then play all the roles in the Hound mystery, their principal parts being Daggett as Holmes, Lind as Dr. Watson and Dyar as Sir Henry Baskerville, the nobleman who’s apparently being stalked by the supernatural hound of legend.
The sleek, minimal sets, the oft silly props, the costume changes (with wardrobe malfunctions) and the extreme condensation of the story are all sources for comedy, and the actors are clearly having fun breaking out of the usual boxes, sometimes literally: A bit with a single window frame standing in for a full cottage is especially clever.
Daggett, who played Henry Ford in Ragtime on Broadway, is new to Flat Rock and takes some ribbing for a Preparation H commercial he is said to have done. Reminiscent of Bob Balaban in the Christopher Guest movie comedies in his use of a serious demeanor to mine laughter, Daggett is a passable Holmes but has much more fun playing several of the suspects, particularly the saucy Miss Stapleton, who woos Sir Henry.
Dyar, a treasured Flat Rock regular, is loose and comfortable as Sir Henry and a series of goofy minor characters, and even as “himself,” spooked by Flat Rock’s backstage ghosts. Lind, who appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest, among other Flat Rock shows, takes on some fun physical comedy and plays well off Daggett, just as a Watson should with his Holmes.
The scenes with all three together are among the funniest, especially the trio’s interlude in a steam room that has the trio performing at full-drollery, with a fine assist from scenic designer Dennis C. Maulden.
Not all the comedy works. The gay-panic jokes seem especially clunky in 2018, and some of the schtick is more obvious than it should be. Although similar in concept, this is not the slapstick storm of The Play That Goes Wrong, seen recently at Greenville, South Carolina’s Peace Center. This is a milder brew, and it carries the burden actually to relate the Holmes mystery as well as twisting it into tomfoolery.
Indeed, one of the more subtle pleasures of The Hound of the Baskervilles is its deconstruction of the leaps of improbability in the original material. Within the moment, it makes it hard to believe anyone ever took this plot seriously.
That’s especially true of the show’s best sequence, at the beginning of Act 2, when the actors decide to recount all of Act 1 in a few minutes of hilarity — a tribute to Jim Helsinger’s mapcap direction.
The show clocks in at precisely two hours, including intermission, and it’s a good palate cleanser leading into the season of nonstop holiday entertainment — including the “all new” second year of A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas, opening Nov. 29.
The Hound of the Baskervilles plays Wednesday-Sunday through Nov. 17. For tickets and more information, visit flatrockplayhouse.org.
(Photos by Treadshots, courtesy of Flat Rock Playhouse)