The Case Is Anything But Elementary in Mysterious Circumstances

Based on a ”New Yorker” article about a real-life death, Michael Mitnick’s Sherlock Holmes-themed play is now running at the Geffen.

Alan Tudyk and Hugo Armstrong in the world premiere of Mysterious Circumstances, directed by Matt Shakman, at the Geffen Playhouse.
Alan Tudyk and Hugo Armstrong in the world premiere of Mysterious Circumstances, directed by Matt Shakman, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Jeff Lorch)

The leading expert on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes becomes the key element in a real-life mystery when he is found dead alone in his apartment. It appears to be murder, but could it be suicide? Has someone who stood to lose millions killed the expert to save an auction of priceless documents? Or had the expert turned fanatic, using a key point from a Sherlock Holmes mystery, with his dying breaths, framed someone for the crime? Based on a 2004 article by New Yorker journalist David Grann, the life and death of Richard Lancelyn Green is explored by playwright Michael Mitnick and the play's director, Matt Shakman, in Mysterious Circumstances, now running at the Geffen Playhouse.

Green (Alan Tudyk), a nebbishy but spirited archivist of Arthur Conan Doyle, has always let his obsession with the writer and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, fill his entire existence. His lauded lectures and articles lead Green to Dame Jean Conan Doyle (Helen Sadler), Arthur's daughter, who lays claim to certain rumored unpublished documents, manuscripts, and letters from her father, including an autobiography. Fearful of her greedy relatives, Jean gives Green 20 minutes to glance at the documents before she has them locked up until her death. Her will shall grant the box of papers to the British Museum. Treachery ensues and a stranger poisons Green's relationship with the dying Conan Doyle. Events lead Green to snap, convinced a conspiracy is afoot. Since the opening moments of the play reveal Green dead on his rug, Green's conspiracy theories may have some kernel of truth.

There are three stories told in Mitnick's play: that of Green, a tragic love story between Arthur Conan Doyle (Austin Durant) and his wife (Sadler), and a witty spoof of Sherlock Holmes (Tudyk) and Watson (Ramiz Monsef) attempting to solve Green's murder. Though the second two stories are compelling, neither belong in this play. They add little to the central story, and though they could stand on their own, they feel like filler here. The original article by Grann, which can be found online, has all the building blocks for a spellbinding play. The scenes that are lifted from the article, or are inspired by the article, ring the best. There is insight in the remaining scenes, but they get buried in the muddle.

The cast is impeccable. Tudyk is both anxious and lonely as Green, while brash and bombastic as Sherlock Holmes. As the only female actor, Sadler gets to play a variety of zany roles that fit her comic talent. Hugo Armstrong adds menace as the American, only to reveal a sensitive side when he admits his admiration for his late adversary in a scene lifted from the article. Durant is commanding as Conan Doyle, while Leo Marks, John Bobek, and Monsef add levity in sporadic supporting roles.

Shakman has turned the fixed space of a theater stage into a cinematic experience with ingenious staging and sleight of hand. All the actors play multiple roles. Shakman has actor-doubles wandering in and out of frame so that one character played by an actor can wander off and another can enter with a completely different outfit. The audiences' eyes will play tricks on them, with one actor seeming to be in several places at the same time in different outfits.

The sets by Brett J. Banakis include panels that slide across the stage, giving the illusion of edits from one setting to another. He gives the audience different angles like the opening sequence where Green lies dead on the rug, but the scene has been repositioned vertically, so the audience can look down at the scene of the crime. The lighting by Elizabeth Harper is moody and enhances the cinematic mise-en-scène. The costumes by E.B. Brooks visualize the two periods reflected in the play: London before the turn of the 20th century where Conan Doyle, his wife, and literary creations reside; and Green's London of the early 2000s.

Saucy dialogue and a tragic protagonist make Mysterious Circumstances entertaining. However, Mitnick should trust the original material more. He has Sherlock Holmes state three times, "Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent," and then ignores that advice. The tale of Richard Lancelyn Green is tantalizing enough. A play that explored all the paradoxes around him would have been a gem of a true-crime thriller.