`Sherlock's Last Case' observes tradition. Marowitz play, starring Langella, stays within Conan Doyle's style

It's elementary, my dear Watson, that Kennedy Center has a full-fledged hit on its hands in ``Sherlock's Last Case.'' You have only to look at the clues: First, Frank Langella has traded in his ``Dracula'' fangs and cape for the deerstalker hat and Inverness cloak of Sherlock Holmes. And he is smashing as the legendary sleuth. Next, Charles Marowitz's original new play is steeped in Victorian intrigue, with a plot involving a mysterious redhead, a carrier pigeon, and a gothic dentist's chair.

A.J. Antoon's lively, original direction brings new zest to the Baker Street mazes. Even its spine-tingling and haunting score by Michael Ward pulls us deep into the mystery.

This is the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of the fictional Holmes. In addition to the 60 Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle, there have been more than 176 plays, movies, and short stories made and written about Holmes, among them ``The Hound of the Baskervilles,'' ``The Seven-Percent Solution,'' ``Young Sherlock Holmes,'' and ``The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,'' currently airing on the PBS series ``Mystery.''

In Mr. Marowitz's imaginative recasting of the Holmes legend, the intrepid detective appears to have met his match. This villain is even more dastardly than Holmes's traditional adversary, Moriarty.

The plot thickens like porridge with the introduction of an offspring of that Moriarty, whom Holmes has always considered an evil genius - in fact, the focus of all evil.

The familiar cast of characters is also there: the solicitous housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, clucking over the care and feeding of the oblivious Holmes; and Dr. Watson, with his century-old reputation for spaniel-like admiration and loyalty toward the crusty Holmes. When Sherlock Holmes says, ``Watson, I think I may have underestimated you all these years,'' he is not just being uncharacteristically gracious.

The plot also includes the familiar bumbling Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard.

This time Holmes, the Houdini of mystery, has trouble extricating himself from the coils of a lethal plot. In Marowitz's brilliant play, this is ``Sherlock's Last Case,'' because Holmes himself is to be dispatched rather gruesomely in a fog-shrouded, underground ex-abattoir so impenetrable that his remains might never be discovered.

Without giving away any of the cliff-hanger plot, it's safe to say Marowitz has devised an ending that may both startle and sadden you.

Along the way he has come up with a script that glitters and bristles with good Baker Street lines: Holmes, the misogynist, counsels his confidant that the most effective way to deal ``with a woman, my dear Watson, is to speak to her as if she were an angel and assume she is a serpent.''

Mr. Langella plays Holmes with great elegance and relish, giving the detective a more dashing appearance and a hint of seductive charm missing in other characterizations.

His Holmes is less brooding than Nicol Williamson's in ``The Seven-Percent Solution,'' more human than Jeremy Brett's high-strung obsessiveness in ``The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.''

But Langella as Holmes absolutely drips condescension like melting icicles on the long-suffering Watson as he explains the deductions only he is mastermind enough to make.

Langella also proves adept at illustrating Holmes's talent for artifice and disguise; I can tell you no more at the dire risk of ruining the plot.

Donal Donnelly co-stars in the challenging role of Dr. Watson, who must carry on, it seems, the tradition of his famous friend in this latest Holmes case. While Donnelly is a fine, adroit actor, he doesn't bring enough of either fire or ice to this particular version of Watson to make the character utterly convincing. Motivation, Watson, motivation, as Holmes might say.

Helena Carroll, as Mrs. Hudson, looks as domestic as a tea cozy and bustles about merrily getting laughs. But she is a bit too full of brass and chatter for this role; perhaps she could mute it. Holmes would certainly have found her a distraction from his silent hours of sleuthing.

Pat McNamara makes a droll Inspector Lestrade and Melinda Mullins a lovely scamp as Liza Moriarty, who turns Holmes's head just a little.

Finally, a special lace antimacassar award to David Jenkins, whose overstuffed Victorian set at Baker Street would have amused even the late queen and whose aboveground-underground murder tunnel is deliciously ominous.

Robert Morgan's Victorian costumes also underline the wit and style of this production by the Kennedy Center, Alfie Productions, and the Landmark Entertainment Group.

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