PREMIERE: L-R/ Ramiz Monsef and Alan Tudyk in the world premiere of Mysterious Circumstances at Geffen Playhouse. Directed by Geffen Playhouse Artistic Director Matt Shakman.

In 2004, The New Yorker published an article by David Grann called “Mysterious Circumstances,” about a Sherlock Holmes scholar/fanatic murdered under—you guessed it—mysterious circumstances. Matt Shakman, now Artistic Director of The Geffen Playhouse, optioned the story, and spent years figuring out how to frame this complex story into a play. He’s succeeded and “Mysterious Circumstances” is now making its world premiere at the Geffen.

A member of British aristocracy (per the story, big house, no money), Richard Lancelyn Green was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes as a child, and as an adult turned his fanatical devotion into a scholarly passion. He was determined to write the definitive biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author-creator of the groundbreaking detective whom he came to resent for overshadowing his life. Doyle thought of himself as a serious writer of forgotten British history and poetry, but no one considered that work any good.

THE INFAMOUS TRUNK

Instead Doyle created the genre-establishing, deerstalker hat/cape-wearing, pipe-smoking, cocaine-using logician who practiced intense observation and rational reason to solve mysteries. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth,” Doyle wrote, representing Sherlock’s methodology, a line mentioned more than once in the play.

Green gets caught up in the search for a rumored trunk with a treasure trove of stories, poems and notebooks by Doyle that went missing when Doyle died. Green befriends Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean, who allows him 20 minutes to look inside the actual trunk, which really does contain those treasures.  She tasks him with moving the trunk to her solicitor’s office for safekeeping, and upon her death, to get the archive to the British Library, so scholars would have access to the materials.

But he is dealing with the envy and possible malicious intent of a competitive scholar, an unnamed American who has managed to bend Dame Jean’s ear and persuade her that Green’s intentions are not pure. And upon Jean’s death, the transfer to the British Library never happened. Green is stunned to read news that the archive would instead be auctioned off by Christie’s.

Green cannot understand how distant relatives of Doyle’s ended up with the rights to Doyle’s archive and he tries to stop the Christie’s auction. This may be why he ended up dead, garroted by a bootlace in his own home—though he did not wear boots—with an empty gin bottle nearby—he didn’t drink gin—and a strange man’s voice on his answering machine’s outgoing message, saying “Sorry, not available.”

THE CREATIVE TEAM

With seven cast members playing multiple roles, the play bounces between the real and fictional characters—Doyle, his wife, Holmes and Dr. Watson, Green, his family and friends, Dame Jean, and the American—shifting back and forth in time from 1894 to 2004.

The staging is absolutely amazing: enormous sliding panels, projections, bookshelves, bridges, a dead body on the floor (suspended from a wall) and super quick, fluid scene changes between the various venues and settings, past and present.

There’s an entire universe of fanatics, scholars and imitators, each of whom might have had a stake in what happens to Green. Including Green himself, according to one line of thought. Is the mystery of Green’s death solved? No; and that’s not a spoiler. The way we don’t find out is very clever— each potential way he might have died (including self-asphyxiation) is demonstrated; then Sherlock tries to edify us with his deduction—which we’ll never hear.

It’s an entertaining and complicated play and the actors are outstanding: Alan Tudyk as Green and Sherlock; Ramiz Monsef as Watson, Green’s friend Henry and others; Austin Durant as Conan Doyle and others; Hugo Armstrong as many characters but primarily, The American; Leo Marks, John Bobek and Helen Sadler fill in all the other blanks.

Written by Michael Mitnick and directed by Shakman, it took a lot of creative wrangling to tie the many threads running through this story into a staged work. That said, I will say the ending (because it’s true) does not come to a straightforward “whodunit” answer. Tying up the still loose ends inspires a slightly ponderous wrap-up.

But this is a terrific romp, both funny and thought-provoking and a beautifully-produced piece of theatre.  “Mysterious Circumstances” runs through July 14, weeknights and weekends including matinees, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Village. Tickets at the box office (310) 208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org.

BEYOND THE NOTES: JAZZ AND HIP HOP

Tomorrow at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, a new documentary traces the storied history of one of the music industry’s most beloved record labels. “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” is a veritable history of jazz, and the two men who created it loved jazz more than they cared about turning a profit. That’s what makes Blue Note Records such a rare beast.

It’s a talky doc, but talk worth hearing—not to mention great music by some giant jazz artists: Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, to name just a few. And just when you wonder whether such an idealistic label can survive the realities of the digital era, the connection between Blue Note and Hip Hop becomes startlingly clear, and the news is good. Jazz gets reinvented by way of sampling.

Go see “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” at Laemmle’s Monica. Tickets here: https://www.laemmle.com/films/45670; and more info about film: https://bluenoterecords-film.com/en/.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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