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The Problems With This 'Watson' Sequel Are Elementary

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In November 2010, a play called Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes was one of my favorite shows. It combined clever writing, an expert ensemble and constantly inventive direction to be a true showcase of great L.A. theatre. Its writer/director, Jaime Robledo, is clearly possessed of abundant talent. It is thus with regret that I have to report that the new sequel premiering at Sacred Fools, Watson And The Dark Art of Harry Houdini, is disappointing, a pale imitation of the original that only sporadically works.

After the publication of John Watson's (Scott Leggett) book about his partnership with Sherlock Holmes (Joe Fria) has estranged the two for a time, they're reluctantly teamed again to attempt to solve a new series of baffling murders. Holmes is still much the same unhinged yet brilliant egotist, but Watson is haunted by the death of his wife, Mary. To help with his overwhelming grief he sees Sigmund Freud (Graham Skipper), whose advice is unfailingly crude if often accurate. Holmes and Watson's inquiry leads them to America, where they investigate possible suspect Harry Houdini (Donal Thoms-Cappello), who, not inappropriately, is both more and less than he appears.

Although Watson is required to be more lugubrious in this show, I actually prefer Leggett's performance here more than in the original play. His connection with the role seems to have deepened, and his portrayal of loss and tentative steps toward living again is moving. Fria is again terrific as Holmes, and he's particularly funny in a scene where he squabbles childishly with his older brother. Skipper, who was excellent in the recent Re-Animator The Musical, gets points for trying hard as Freud, but, in a role made indelible by French Stewart in the first play, he doesn't entirely make the outrageous character work. Thoms-Cappello is personable and properly inscrutable as Houdini, and impresses in a re-creation of Houdini's hanging man escape routine. Carrie Keranen is charming as Watson's shipboard acquaintance Violet.

Robledo's direction of the original Watson was a stunning showcase for his creativity, one memorable set piece after another blending into an astonishing whole. His direction here feels much less inspired, and although there are nice visual moments, from a merry-go-round ride to a shuffleboard game, the "wow" factor isn't as prevalent. This may be because Robledo has written a very different play this time, which I think is the crux of the problem. It seems to me that he wanted to write a piece about loss and death, but instead of pursuing that on its own, he placed it within the Watson story, which unfortunately isn't a great fit. As a result the Holmes/Watson adventure gets short shrift, with an abrupt ending that curiously tosses the mystery element of the story aside unresolved, a conclusion I doubt will satisfy many audience members. I have no doubt that Robledo will go on to write and direct many great shows, but unfortunately this highly anticipated project is a misfire.

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"Watson And The Dark Art of Harry Houdini" plays at Sacred Fools through July 27. Tickets are available online.