Theater Review: MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES (Geffen Playhouse in Westwood)

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by Tony Frankel on July 3, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


As with Good Boys playing across town, Mysterious Circumstances doesn’t quite give us an ending the material deserves, but hoo-boy what a ride this is. Directed by Matt Shakman with a magical meta-theatrical flourish that makes life worth living, our fever dream is based on the still-unsolved true-life death of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fanatic, Richard Lancelyn Green, whose vast collection of all things Sherlock would make The Collyer Brothers seem like amateur pack-rats. One thing Green sorely wanted was an archive in the possession of Doyle’s youngest daughter — a treasure chest of unpublished Doyle writings (Holmes stories; an autobiography; letters) that was purported to be willed to the British Museum upon her death. When Green discovered in 2oo4 that the invaluable writings were to be sold at auction, he leapt to action before that could happen, so is it mere coincidence that just days before Christie’s sold the goods Green was found dead by garroting with a black shoelace around his neck, a wooden spoon near his hand, and some stuffed animals on the bed? And then there was that partially empty bottle of gin by the body. Green didn’t drink gin. Since then, clues have done nothing but pile up, and the guess by police is suicide. It is still considered a murder by some of Green’s associates.

This sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes. For Geffen Playhouse, playwright Michael Mitnick grabbed Shakman’s suggestion and took David Grann’s fascinating New Yorker story and shrewdly turned Green’s death into a sleuth-style search for the truth, using time-jumping and a blurry line between fact and fiction to introduce us to the cast of characters in Green’s life — from gay men to Sherlock fanatics and even Dr. Watson and Doyle himself. It’s a jumble of information thrown at us in a variety of ways, but it’s so cunningly constructed that puzzlers and theatergoers alike will be in heaven. Adroitly played by a chameleonic cast of seven on Brett J. Banakis’s puzzle-box set, Shakman uses illusion artists Francis Menotti and David Kwong to create images that will stay with you long after the show — my favorite being an opening scene of a dead body that gives Billy Wilder’s shot of William Holden floating in a pool a run for its money. The staging also allows for locations and eras (1894 to 2oo4) to switch on a dime, with the amazing Alan Tudyk playing both Green and Sherlock.

My quibble is that while Mitnick offers suggestions as to Green’s older, later life, he gives very little as to Green’s background, which makes Green’s eventual collision with his own obsession (no spoilers here) emotionless. Without that heart, at times the second act can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. Still, this is a fun house of a show that, for a world premiere, impressed me very much.

photos by Jeff Lorch

Mysterious Circumstances
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on July 14, 2019
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

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