By Lorraine Dusky
Tina Jones is absolutely swell as a shrewd street urchin … And a down-at-the heels widow waiting to be rescued by Mr. Got Bucks … And a Slavic housekeeper straight out of the Addams family … And a seemingly upright single woman looking for love.
One could go on about the person listed as “Actress One” in the program for (here comes a mouthful) “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Homes Mystery” because Tina Jones is that good in the Hampton Theatre Company’s (HTC) current production of the comedy at the Quogue Community Hall.
Jones plays god-knows-how-many parts in this rendition of a goofy take-off in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best loved stories, the 1902 novella, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
We loved Jones two seasons ago as the mysterious sexual predator, Vanda, in HTC’s “Venus in Fur” in Quogue, and we love her again. It’s just that we can’t love this offering, even though Zeus knows, it’s trying to be ever-so-hilarious.
Playwright Ludwig has certainly written plays that tickle the world’s funny bone: His official biography says that he’s written “over 28 plays and musicals.” (Since 28 is numerically specific, one wonders what happened to his output that didn’t get counted, but never mind.) Ludwig’s work has been performed in “over 30 countries in more than 20 languages,” he’s won a trunkful of awards, including Tonys and Olivers, and more to the specific point here, has charmed audiences in Quogue three times previously in their 35 seasons, including last year’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” which we found uproarious.
Back to the work at hand, “Baskerville” which has 38 characters played by three people. They come and go with such rapidity and changes in accent, manner, walk, wigs and wardrobe that it is fun to see how they accomplish all this amid the clamor of a missed clue.
The story starts out rather straight-forward Sherlockian (the character is in the public domain so anyone can mess with him) but within a few seconds one knows something else is going on here. HTC’s best comic actor, the gangly and thin-as-chopsticks Andrew Botsford, appears as a washerwoman within seconds, scrubbing the floor in Holmes’ tweedy and cigar-infested rooms. And then “Poof!” Was that him as the ghoul from the past, a hapless heir of the Baskerville manor whose untimely death is precipitated by a canine? All that’s before Botsford (Actor One or Two, depending on where you find him listed in the program) arrives as the tall Texan in a 10-gallon hat, the next heir to the manor. And so on.
Before the finale, he and others as other characters come and go so fast they might not make it off the stage. In one particularly gifted bit, Botsford switches roles from the tough-talking Scotland Yard Inspector to the Texan heir of the manor as they are carrying on a conversation with another character, but which one escapes the mind. Your eyes are all on Botsford.
The third member of this madcap trio is the excellent Ben Schnickel. He gets more stage time as the befuddled botanist, or the, uh, distant relative or enigmatic friend, of the previous owner of the manor, but his funniest role is that of a Castilian hotel desk clerk in London who wails over lapses in British propriety.
Only Sherlock, a masterfully stuffy Matthew Conlon, and Watson, a befuddled but reasonable Duncan Hazard, have singular parts on stage. Conlon has this great booming voice that he uses to good effect here.
While everyone in the cast is up to the job — no small feat — the melodrama itself has no dramatic tension, the ending, even if you haven’t read the much-loved story, is predictable, and the hilarity isn’t smart enough to make you not care. Instead of guffaws, we get titters. It’s as if Ludwig, already hugely successful by the time he wrote “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville…” in 2015, glommed on to the gimmick of actors playing numerous characters and thought it might carry the day. To make sure everyone got the idea that because he wrote it, it must be funny, he stuffed his name upfront in the title. And everyone went along. But like bread made with stale yeast, the material just doesn’t quite fully rise.
The manor house, incidentally, appears on a screen as a backdrop and seems to be as large and foreboding as Downton Abbey, if my eyes are to be trusted, and so … it’s likely that someone else might be hoping to be the next heir in a long line who met their untimely demise. Other scenes that come and go are Paddington Station, a foggy London street — there’s lots of fog on stage — the brooding moors, an opera house and certainly more we’ve lost track of, but that’s not the point.
What does matter is how deftly the scene changes and actors make it all work with split-second timing. HTC favorite Dana Marbury directs this stuffed sack of mayhem. Just keeping track of the script, and who anyone in the troupe will be 10 seconds later or less is masterful, and the cast keeps at it with aplomb.
Overall “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville” has a few brilliant bits of farce that elicit more than a soft chuckle from the audience, but one just wishes the play itself were ever-so-better.
Hampton Theatre Company’s production of “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” runs through November 10 at the Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue. Shows are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. An additional matinee will be offered on Saturday, November 9. A talkback with the cast will take place following the show on Friday, November 1. Tickets are $30 (with some discounts available) at hamptontheatre.org or OvationTix, 1-866-811-4111.
Dinner theater packages are available through the Westhampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays and Quogue libraries. A lunch theater package at the Quogue Club at the Hallock House is also available for the matinee on November 9. For reservations and information on all packages, visit hamptontheatre.org.