Ross Valley Player’s screwball comedy emphasizes slapstick

The Ross Valley Players began their 88th season with a classic John Kander & Fred Ebb musical extravaganza, “Cabaret.”

I found it delightful.

Their second 2017-18 offering, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays,” a farce/mystery, is far flimsier.

So I found it, uh, not quite as delightful.

Robert Molossi plays actor William Gillette playing Sherlock Holmes as Isabelle Grimm (Aggie Wheeler) looks on. Photos by Gregg LeBlanc/CumulusLight Photography.

Yet it features a magnificently over-the-top slapstick performance by Robert Molossi as real-life actor William Gillette, who can’t stop spouting lines from Shakespeare and can’t stop playing in private life the Sherlock Holmes role he played on stage.

And a wonderfully cartoonish portrayal of Inspector Goring by Pamela Ciochetti, a wannabe actress.

In addition, Ellen Brooks, who’s also responsible for the screwball comedy’s lighting design, is wryly and subtly splendid as Gillette’s over-protective mom, Martha, while Rachel Kayhan provides manifold funny moments as the floppy corpse of snarky theater critic Daria Chase.

Eye-appealing costumes by Michael Berg that fit like a proverbial glove the play’s 1936 Christmastime framework; a simple but appealing set design by Malcolm Rodgers that includes an interior castle wall packed with axes, daggers, knives and assorted firearms, and another with an erratic revolving bar leading to a hidden room; and scary gunshot and thunderstorm sounds by Bruce Vieira that establish a noir effect — all helped me appreciate the play.

Pamela Ciochetti (Inspector Goring) gestures as Isabelle Grimm (Aggie Wheeler) and Elliot Hanson (Simon Bright) look on. Photo by Gregg LeBlanc/CumulusLight Photography.

Although director Christian Haines draws as many laughs as possible from playwright Ken Ludwig’s words, it’s not until the second act — after a sluggish first half filled with excessive exposition, character development and plot thickening — that the chuckles come frequently.

Funniest scenes are physical tour de forces in which a character who’s been stabbed in the back unsuccessfully tries to convey her plight and when Gillette wields a sheet like a matador’s cape to hide a body behind a couch.

The plot involves dysfunctional affairs and relationships, massive wealth and a madcap séance.

Plus, of course, murder most foul.

With each character — some of whom are caricatures, others stereotypes, but all eccentric — being a suspect.

The Ross Valley Players definitely like to put on plays by Ludwig, whose works have been performed in more than 30 countries in more than 20 languages. In recent years, in fact, I’ve seen his “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Fox and the Fairway” and an adaption of “Twentieth Century” at their venue, the Barn at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross.

Ludwig, incidentally, also adapted the Agatha Christie novel “Murder on the Orient Express” into a stage play that premiered in Princeton in March to lukewarm reviews in what was intended to be a pre-Broadway outing.

“The Game’s Afoot” isn’t the best RVP show — or even the best comedy — I’ve ever seen, and it has a convoluted ending, but I still rate it as a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours.

“The Game’s Afoot” will run at The Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, through Dec. 10. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12-$22. Information: (415) 456-9555 or www.rossvalleyplayers.com.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net