First Nighter: "Ken Ludwig's Baskerville," Richard Maxwell's "The Evening"

03/23/2015 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Baskerville -- excuse me, I mean to say Ken Ludwig's Baskerville, as it's correctly called -- is a crackerjack adaptation of, you've already guessed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, at Princeton's McCarter Theatre only for the rest of this week. Perhaps Lugwig uses a truncated title because his calling it Ken Ludwig's Hound of the Baskervilles would have been a trifle presumptuous, and he didn't want to go that far.

Never mind. What he, director Amanda Dehnert, set designer Daniel Ostling, costume designer Jess Goldstein, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg, sound designers Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli, wig designer Leah J. Loukas and especially cast members Gregory Wooddell, Lucas Hall, Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek and Michael Glenn have produced is two hours (with intermission) of pure Sherlock Holmes fun. They've done it not so much at Doyle's expense as in loving respect.

Only the five actors are afoot -- Gooddell as Holmes, Hall as Dr. Watson and the other three playing 43 characters. This is due to Ludwig's believing, as he says in promotional material, that such creative theatrics seemed the way to get a panoramic story on stage. What he doesn't say is whether the successful 39 Steps four-actor treatment (about to reopen in Manhattan) served as impetus for him.

Perhaps it didn't. Whatever, he's produced a worthy companion to the predecessor. Watching and listening to this many-liberties-cheerfully-taken version of the mystery of Sir Charles Baskerville's murder on the moors, as slowly solved by Holmes with Watson's sometimes questionable help, it's impossible to count the surprises Ludwig and Dehnert ceaselessly spring on the enthralled audience. People and props emerge from trapdoors. Clothes, chairs, flowers and what-all fly from the wings or drop from the ceilings. A stuffed rabbit speeds across the stage.

Quick changes not only abound, but they sometimes take place in front of the patrons. Occasionally, they're even wryly acknowledged. The only ones who never change basic outfits, although they don overcoats or smoking jackets, are Holmes and Watson. Otherwise, they wear their three-piece suits accessorized by wing-tip collars, narrow ties and puffy pocket squares.

Be advised that no deerstalker cap or meerschaum pipe appear. They, of course, were accouterments introduced not by Doyle but by William Gillette. Also absent, purists need to know, from this Sherlock (as they mostly are from the Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller television updatings) are a violin and drug addiction. Therefore, if anything is lacking in Ken Ludwig's Baskerville, it's the kinds of jokes Ludwig of Lend Me a Tenor and the Crazy for You libretto might have squeezed from sending up those familiar Holmes characteristics.

Nevertheless, the handsome Wooddell, who somewhat resembles Kenneth Branagh, has included quirks of his own. This Sherlock likes to sit on club chairs with his legs folded beneath him, and every once in a while he gives over to nervous grimaces. Like, for instance, Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett before him, Wooddell has turned himself into a Sherlock Holmes with whom fans will be happy to spend time.

The same can be said of Hall's Watson, who's a young-ish, evidently single replication of one of literature's most adored sidekicks. As Doyle always has it, Watson narrates the story, marveling at his mate's astonishing observation skills -- while this particular Sherlock eschews terming anything "elementary."

Pfitsch, Bahorek and Glenn are the ones doing the most legwork, as they enter and exit while piling up those 43 supplementary dramatis personae. Whereas Wooddell and Hall stick pretty much to one accent, the other three not only have to slip into and out of innumerable ensembles, they have to take on and drop innumerable accents. (Gillian Lane-Prescia is the dialect coach. She earned her salary here.)

Right now at the Museum of London, an exhibit called "The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die" celebrates Sherlock Holmes and his city. One of the attractions is a video tracking Sherlock's Hound of the Baskervilles peregrinations through today's London. It's shown in fast motion. Ken Ludwig's Baskerville moves just about as speedily. I urge Holmes lovers to race equally rapidly to the McCarter.
With his prolific works Richard Maxwell gives the inescapable impression that he finds the niceties of theatrical production -- things like scripting, acting, design -- compromising. The more well crafted they are, the more removed they are from holding up the mirror to true life.

As a consequence he minimizes them as much as he can. The problem for me (but not for his advocates) is that the results are pieces that merely look amateurish. I include among them his current New York City Players item at The Kitchen: The Evening.

When Cammissa Buerhaus walks on the shallow set, she first sits at a table and reads from a few pages about the dying father she doesn't want to lose. When she finishes, she stands up and walks behind a counter. This is when she becomes barmaid Beatrice (if she hasn't already been barmaid Beatrice) and commences a scene with boxer manager Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) and aging boxer Asi (Brian Mendes).

Over several beers that Beatrice serves, the three discuss in rising and falling tones their dissatisfaction with one another. Cosmo thinks Asi should retire from the ring, even though the fighter prevailed in his most recent bout. Asi wants his next fight scheduled immediately and also wants to continue living with Beatrice, who announces she's saved enough money to go to Istanbul.

The three-way confrontation leads to physical conflict as well as to Beatrice's wielding a pistol she eventually fires. Twice. It also leads to a number of stagehands dismantling the set and Beatrice's wandering into the larger white space wearing a shabby white coat.

The proceedings, ostensibly a sympathetic depiction of how a young woman can get lost in the world, have no emotional pull. Nor is the 75-minute play enhanced by a three-person band (James Moore, Andie Springer, David Zuckerman) playing and singing monotone songs Maxwell has written and the trio has haphazardly arranged.

There's no dramatic urgency to "The Evening," and little else that can be said on its behalf, even though every once in a while a lone audience member emits a laugh that suggests someone finds Maxwell's awkward figures funny. One thing that can be said in favor of The Evening is that it closes with a coup de theatre involving piped-in smoke. Yes, there is that.