With a great flourish, Sherlock Holmes, in Charles Marowitz's elegant "Sherlock's Last Case," begins a sentence, "Since everything has an explanation..." In these five words, Marowitz has caught both the reason for Holmes' abiding appeal and an explanation for why his own "warts and all" approach to the character seems right for our skeptical times.
Unlike many detective novels, it is exceedingly unlikely that the average reader can guess "whodunit" in a Holmes case. Unless your mind is as encyclopedic as Holmes', unless you understand the reason for every fly speck on the wallpaper, you can never solve the crimes he does.
But it is reassuring to know that on Baker St., in the heart of London, there resides a man for whom the most complex mystery can be reduced to a level where it is "elementary, my dear Watson."
One of the few myths created by the hard-headed age of science, Holmes exemplifies the belief that there are no mysteries in the face of reason and research.
A century later we are less certain about this boundless optimism. Science, we know, has created nightmares as well as benefits. Looking back, we see the scientific attitude as one of arrogance. And it is arrogance, even cruelty that characterizes Marowitz's Sherlock.
Granted his superciliousness, we are not surprised to learn that Holmes is the intended victim of a murder plot. Moreover we can't help admiring the ingenuity both the murderer and Marowitz use to lure Holmes to his death. The play is full of surprises and an inventive theatricality that makes it entertaining despite Marowitz's coldness toward the character and some unnecessary, coy vulgarity.
Frank Langella has captured this coldness quite perfectly. His features, so haunting and romantic as another 19th century mythical character, Dracula, here seem etched in marble. He moves imperiously across the stage, and if his gestures seem calculated, perhaps it is because nothing Holmes does is without calculation.
Interestingly, Holmes has always seemed a sexless character. Langella, who has often brought great eroticism to the stage, channels his energies into self-absorption, making the character suitably antiseptic.
Equally impressive is Donal Donnelly, who gives the long suffering Watson a vulnerability and a vitality the character rarely has a chance to show. He seems to embody all the emotion missing from the cerebral Holmes.
Pat McNamara has wonderful bluster as Inspector Lestrade and Melinda Mullins has an invigorating theatricality as the offspring of Holmes' enemy Moriarty. Jennie Ventriss is funny as Holmes' landlady.
A young Chicago actor named Morris Yablonsky gives a wide-eyed performance as a Holmes imposter. His goony smile reminded me oddly of Harpo Marx, but his youthful gusto compensated for his occasional hamminess and made a nice counterpoint to the refinement of Langella's work.
Director A.J. Antoon has stressed the artificiality of much of the play, but he has gotten solid work from the actors. David Jenkins' sets capture the mood beautifully, though Pat Collins' lighting often falls short. Robert Morgan's costumes are well suited to the tricky drama.
"Sherlock's Last Case" is entertainment, pure and simple, full of insights into an enduring and fascinating character.
Sherlock Holmes is back in town, looking a little like the actor Frank Langella, deerstalker, violin and meerschum pipe at the ready.
The game's afoot at the Nederlander Theater. It is called "Sherlock's Last Case" (a likely tale!) and that case was opened for the first time last night.
The author, New York-born Londoner Charles Marowitz, has good-naturedly inflicted a certain amount of stylistic mayhem upon his eminent Victorian, and for diehard devotees the story will seem, if diabolically ingenious, also facetiously slight - yet at the very least it maintains the Holmes theatrical spirit.
What is this particular, unquenchable charm of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes? It transcends Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original creation; indeed, it nowadays almost transcends sense.
The arch scholarship that surrounds the Baker Street original gives Conan Doyle's meticulously observed creation a very special literary patina that has eventually endowed the fiction with a reality that itself, in turn, becomes almost self-fulfilling.
The character now lives quite outside the comparatively narrow boundaries of Conan Doyle's original stories. Indeed, largely through the successful efforts of Holmes's first great stage adapter, the American William Gillette, Sherlock Holmes in plays, films, and more recently TV, has assumed a mythic, iconic image.
He is the stuff the very atmosphere of the theater is made of; he smells of greasepaint and fantasy.
It was Gillette, with his 1899 play, and his performance (he kept on reviving it until 1931), who set the Sherlock pattern and also contributed the great detective's most famous remark, unaccountably never recounted by Conan Doyle: "Elementary, my dear Watson."
The play itself was based on a number of genuine Conan Doyle stories - and indeed, at first the novelist was credited as co-dramatist - but the character's stage realization was very much Gillette's own creation, admittedly depending for visual detail on the original Holmesian illustrations in the Strand magazine.
Since then there have been any number of distinguished Holmeses, including, of course, the durable Basil Rathbone, and, on stage, particularly John Wood, who together with director Frank Dunlop and the RSC restored Gillette's play to the boards in London and New York in 1974.
Marowitz is, however, offering us a revisionist view of Holmes. The story - which for the purpose of the notice need not here concern us - is flamboyantly fanciful, and derives from a comedy-thriller tradition rooted as much in Peter Shaffer's "Sleuth" as in Conan Doyle.
And although the writing abounds in sub-Wilde, sub-Shaw, sub-Coward, subterreanean mock epigrams, it is madly anachronistic, and all too willing to sacrifice tone and taste for an easy laugh.
Thus, almost as the curtain rises, we find the estimable Dr. Watson talking about a young woman's cleavage, and Holmes himself appearing to quote Mae West.
Marowitz should be careful - Conan Doyle was an activist spiritualist and might well want to come back to haunt him for such vulgar solecisms as a 1794 Chateau Neuf du Pape, the use of the word "Episcopalian" to describe a place of worship that could not be other than Church of England, and such careless detailing as placing a recital in the Wigmore Hall in 1889 when that estimable hall was not opened until 1901.
The surprising thing is that helped by the performances - particularly by Langella's masterly Holmes - A.J. Antoon's deft direction and David Jenkins' ornately affectionate setting, the jape works, and the evening, despite a disappointing ending, passes very decently.
Langella's Holmes, his heroin addiction transformed to hashish, his courtesy revealed as rudeness, his vanity and smug arrogance caught in a cruel spotlight and resembling a little a bloodless Gore Vidal, is a delightful impersonation.
As Watson - a character every bit as revisioned as his senior colleague - Donal Donnelly is very effective in a dishevelled fashion. Pat McNamara makes a decently doltish Inspector Lestrade, Jennie Ventriss is the convincing butt of Holmes's penny-pinching as the Housekeeper, and Melinda Mullins makes a wide-eyed innocent as the beautiful redhead.
There are many faults to be picked with "Sherlock's Last Case," but they are not so much worth calling attention to as is the recommendation that this is a most entertaining night out, with Langella as your urbane master of the revels.
According to a line in ''Sherlock's Last Case,'' one characteristic of a ''great mind'' is the ability to ''change the ordinary into the extraordinary.'' That's elementary - but what kind of mind changes the extraordinary into the excruciating? One can use Holmesian deductive powers to answer that question - or simply report to the Nederlander Theater and watch such minds at work. In ''Sherlock's Last Case,'' the writer Charles Marowitz and accomplices have so completely diminished Victorian England's most beloved detective that one leaves the play wishing its title were a promise rather than merely an idle threat.
''Sherlock's Last Case'' is hardly the first botched attempt to retool Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction for contemporary audiences. For every clever ''Seven-Per-Cent Solution,'' there has always been a ''Baker Street'' or a ''Sherlock Holmes's Smarter Brother.'' Still, it's hard to recall a Holmes spinoff that failed, as this one does, in every area: ''Sherlock's Last Case'' is resolutely unable to muster the characters, narrative suspense, wit or even the fogbound atmosphere of its prototype. At least the 1979 ''Crucifer of Blood,'' Broadway's last Holmes misadventure, sporadically woke up the house with blisteringly ferocious thunderstorms. In this timid production, the rain stays mainly in a windowpane.
The evening's one tenuous hold on life is Frank Langella, whose sonorous voice and graying matinee-idol flamboyance make him an ideal candidate to play Holmes. In practice, however, the performance is curiously restrained and perfunctory: if the star effortlessly conveys the sleuth's intelligence, arrogance and penchant for self-dramatization - as well as his Cheshire cat grins under the influence of cocaine - he never decides whether to give us a straight Holmes in the Basil Rathbone tradition or a camped-up turn in the manner of John Wood's 1974 Broadway romp through the old William Gillette adaptation. Unable to let go as he did in ''Dracula'' yet understandably worried that he'll lose the audience if he plays Mr. Marowitz's lines at face value, Mr. Langella often looks ill-at-ease. His one sustained stab at the jugular - an Act II impersonation of another, and seemingly brain-damaged, character - is an unwatchable, painfully forced tour de force of moronic grins, epicene hand gestures and relentless eye popping.
The shortcomings of Mr. Langella's performance are consistent with the confused script. I will not give away the plot - the author is more than capable of doing so on his own - but one can report that the ''perfect crime'' at hand is so convoluted that its perpetrators bore the audience to death well before they get around to murdering their prey. Long speeches must set up the very few events that actually transpire on stage, after which come even longer speeches that are required to explain how those events were, predictably, not what they appeared to be. What's missing throughout this arbitrary mishmash is any real sense of jeopardy or any of the ingenious internal logic that makes Conan Doyle's puzzles so much fun to crack.
The repartee that stitches together the exposition is not exactly Shavian. ''Mrs. Hudson has always known on which side her scone is buttered,'' goes one of the few jokes not dependent on a crude alimentary or anatomical reference. Although the play tries to make Freudian hay out of the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, it reveals its true intellectual level with its persistent anachronisms and feeble approximations of worldly sophistication. Not once but twice does Sherlock suavely serve a prized wine - identified as ''Chateauneuf du Pape 1794'' - that would be vinegar in 1897 even if its ostensibly enophilic owner did not uncork the bottle prior to storing it.
A. J. Antoon, the director, seems to have recruited his supporting cast from last summer's ''Arsenic and Old Lace'' academy of acting. A particular disappointment is Donal Donnelly, whose whiny, humorless Watson devastates Mr. Marowitz's ambitions to make the doctor a dominant figure in the action. As for Mr. Antoon's staging, it mainly consists of lowering the lights and turning up the violin music to tell us when something creepy is happening. (Certainly we'd have no way of knowing otherwise.) David Jenkins's two sets - a routine evocation of the 221B Baker Street sitting room and a musty cellar - get the evening's biggest hand at that late Act II moment when they are changed right before our very eyes. As always, an audience that gratefully applauds a turntable is an audience that has spent too many hours in contemplation of the inert.