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On paper, "The Game's Afoot" has all the trappings of an enjoyable play. On stage, it's a different story.

Theater review: "The Game's Afoot" at Blackfriars 

On paper, "The Game's Afoot," a comedy by Ken Ludwig, has all the trappings of an enjoyable play -- a lighthearted parody of the murder mystery genre in a Christmas setting. On stage, in a Blackfriars Theatre production directed by Kerry Young, the reality is disappointing.

With the alternative title of "Holmes for the Holidays," the play focuses on the quirky actor and playwright William Gillette, who has made a name for himself portraying Sherlock Holmes on the stage. After a failed attempt on his life during a New York City performance, Gillette -- played by John Forrest Thompson -- retreats to his swanky Connecticut home to recuperate. His recent misfortune does not prevent him from inviting his fellow cast members over for a small Christmas Eve party, however.

Years of playing the iconic detective has blurred the line between fact and fiction for Gillette, and fancying himself a real-life Holmes, he enlists his guests in helping him solve the crime. But things take a grisly turn when one guest, the theater critic Daria Chase (a pitch-perfect Jillian Severin), is found with a knife embedded in her back, and a real detective (Abby DeVuyst) arrives on the scene.

Those looking to take in a Christmas play should go elsewhere. The fact that the setting is a holiday party is a superficial detail, a pretense for all the characters to be assembled in one place, and nothing more.

In order to be entertaining satire, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is a must. And with regard to the acting profession, Ludwig's script contains a hearty dose of knowing self-deprecation.

The problem is that the cast's intentionally hammy acting is so stylized and overwrought that it became stilted and irritating. The characters' every breath is meant to be bravado and artifice (no one is exactly what he or she seems), and yet a more natural delivery would have made the colorful characters more engaging and endearing, rather than just thespian caricatures.

Only Severin's depiction of the haughty, condescending, and manipulative Daria resonated with the right tone and provided the proper dramatic motivation for her demise. In this case, the over-the-top approach to Daria was justified to match her extreme unlikeability as a character. The other characters were simply not relatable, from the emotionally unfaithful Aggie Wheeler (played by Kate Osher) and her milquetoast husband Simon Bright (Colin D. Pazik) to the self-indulgent Gillette and his showboating best friend Felix Geisel (Jeff Siuda). There was simply little reason to care what happened to these characters, and by extension, little reason to care about discovering the identity of the murderer.

In any effective play, the actors' ability to engage the audience so thoroughly that you forget you are watching a staged performance is paramount, but at no point in "The Game's Afoot" does this level of engagement occur. I was, at all times, painfully aware that it's just a show. It doesn't make it easier that the script calls for actors to play actors. That said, the Blackfriars cast didn't have to sell it as hard as they did.

Although Ludwig's story is deliberately farcical, in the absence of any feeling of danger and suspense, the potency of the comedy fell flat. One well-placed jab at arts criticism aside, the play is inherently unfunny, and therein lies the show's most fatal flaw. The story relies much too heavily on visual gimmicks and physical humor in the absence of authentic wit.

While the brisk pace of the second act made for a punchier end to the mystery, it was in no way enough to salvage the play. Instead of trying too hard to be cute, "The Game's Afoot" would have benefited from simply being clever.

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