Runs through July 21
Tickets at geffenplayhouse.org
With the rise of “fan culture” in today’s world, almost everyone knows someone who fits the stereotypical image of an individual so fanatical over their favorite fictional world that their obsessions dominate their lives. Indeed, if we’re being truthful, most of us have a strong enough loyalty to our own preferred “fandoms” that we can even relate to the impulse, at least a little. One might think this is a recent development in the history of human behavior but it’s really nothing new; consider, for example, the fans of British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (or rather, of his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes), who over a century ago raised such an outcry when the writer killed off their beloved hero that he eventually gave in and resurrected him. This formidable fan community, still going strong today, has been rabidly devouring every shred of memorabilia and clamoring over every new revelation since long before anyone had ever heard the words “Star Wars.”
One such fan is at the center of “Mysterious Circumstances,” a new play by Michael Mitnick currently in its masterfully staged premiere run at the Geffen Playhouse. Based on a New Yorker article of the same name by David Grann, it’s a deceptively whimsical examination of the real-life mystery surrounding the death of a world-renowned English scholar and collector of Doyle’s work, Richard Lancelyn Green, who was found strangled to death with a bootlace in his own locked London apartment with no evidence of any forced entry or exit. As revealed in Mitnick’s inventively theatrical recounting of the saga, Green (magnificently played by Alan Tudyk) was a loner with a lot of money whose passion for Doyle and his enigmatic creation had made him the world’s foremost expert on the subject. In the months before his death, he became involved in an imbroglio over a box of long-lost manuscripts, letters, and other documents that had gone up for auction after the passing of Doyle’s granddaughter — who had, according to Green, intended to donate the papers to the British Library. He tried, unsuccessfully, to block the auction; he told friends that he was being threatened by an unidentified American and feared for his life. With the discovery of his body, it seemed that his fears might have been well-founded – but police were stymied by the lack of evidence and conflicting details in the investigation, and they were ultimately unable to determine if Green’s death had been a murder or a suicide.
True to the spirit of intrigue that infuses the Holmes stories themselves, Mitnick’s play creates a sort of literary conspiracy thriller around Green’s final days, with all of the melodramatic trappings that made their transition into modern pulp fiction largely through Doyle’s work; but as a playwright, he has the luxury to bring a deeper level to the proceedings, and weaves the cloak-and-dagger plotline around the much more pertinent matter of Green himself. As he narrates the story of his own death, he also reflects on his inner life – particularly the supplanting of his need for human connection by the one he feels to a dead author and a fictional character – and offers us glimpses of the loneliness and desperation that increase as he grows more and more isolated from the world. That’s not to say “Mysterious Circumstances” doesn’t deliver a mystery; on the contrary, it relishes in doing so, offering up an assortment of colorful characters as suspects – a neglected boyfriend, a jealous rival, even an opportunistic dentist – and tracking a multitude of loose threads through a sea of possible clues. It also expands the mystery by bringing it into the motives that shaped Doyle and his writing, by way of interwoven scenes depicting key episodes in the author’s life and career; for an added level of fun, it even brings Holmes and his trusted sidekick Dr. Watson into the action to investigate the crime from their own fictional plane of existence.
There is much to delight audiences to be found in this spectacularly staged production. Director Matt Shakman and set designer Brett J. Banakis pull out all the stops in creating an immersive, bombastic experience, dispensing liberal amounts of theatrical magic to dazzle us and challenge our perceptions. The aforementioned Tudyk, widely known for his roles in films like “Death at a Funeral” and his award-winning voice work, makes Green a simultaneously endearing and frustrating figure, bringing empathy to this real-life enigma; he also doubles in a suitably over-the-top turn as Sherlock Holmes, showing off his considerable comic skills to make those sequences a highlight of the show. Surrounding him is an ensemble of equally talented actors – five men, one woman – who take on the multitude of other roles; Ramiz Monsef stands out both as the Watson to Tudyk’s Holmes and as the love interest that Green (who was gay) lets slip away, as does Helen Sadler in her impressive rendering of all the females in the play.
Yet, as ingenious and sumptuously realized as it is, “Mysterious Circumstances” doesn’t quite leave us with the same savory satisfaction of a good Sherlock Holmes tale; perhaps because the case it describes was never resolved, the play likewise never arrives at any tangible conclusions about the “mysterious circumstances” of Green’s state of mind; and though it strongly suggests a solution to the mystery of its plot, it leaves us to speculate over the reasons why – casting an appropriately existential pall over all we have seen as it allows all its carefully crafted intellectual architecture to evaporate into the blackout like so much ephemera.
Still, just because it doesn’t satisfy doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In the end, of course, the mystery being enacted for us here has nothing to do with long-lost papers or mysterious Americans; those things, like the MacGuffins and red herrings in a Hitchcock movie, are merely the engines that drive the real plot. The play doesn’t ask who killed Richard Green, or really even why they did it. Rather, it asks us to contemplate how a person can allow their life to become detached from the world of their fellow humans, and what it does to them when they do. Perhaps most impressively, it applies the principles of logical and empirical investigation that were first championed and popularized in popular culture by Doyle himself to the deeper questions raised by Green’s story.
For that alone, Sherlock Holmes would be proud.