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THEATER REVIEW : Another Look at Holmes : The cumbersome play portrays the sleuth as a woman disguised as a man.

May 20, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

BURBANK — It's quite elementary, if you think about it. Sherlock Holmes was a woman who disguised herself as a man. That high voice and hairless chin, that secrecy about the past and the mysterious childhood. That love of dissembling.

If you don't believe it, visit Group Repertory Theatre and meet Holmes the confident masquerader in "221 B Baker Street," the first full-length play by Therese Lentz who manages, in one swoop, to outrage both Holmesologists and cross-dressers.

Mind you, this is not wicked satire or exaggerated comedy so much as intriguing revisionism. As far as the character Holmes is concerned, director Patricia Lee Willson presents him/her forthrightly enough, albeit in a comedic, sometimes farcical context.

Unfortunately, the plot almost defies explanation on paper, and on stage it's totally numbing and defeating.

We meet the great detective (actress Whitney Vale) in his/her cluttered Baker Street study indulging in a pot of tea with the lovable and bumbling Dr. Watson (the delightful Shelly Kurtz). Suffice it to say that Watson, the Boswell-like chronicler, has incurred the wrath of Holmes' elder, thin-skinned brother Mycroft Holmes (the over-the-top Andrew Brennan) by calling him uncouth names in the Victorian periodical "The Strand."

The frenetic, priggish Mycroft concocts a lavish plan to exact revenge on Sherlock and Watson with the help of a phony suicide report and the arrival of a spoiled, hyper intermediary (the amusing Mike E. Smith).

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But the ruse blows apart when Holmes falls for the young intermediary, who is equally drawn to Holmes in a liaison that materializes discreetly in Holmes' bedroom (the fusty, rumpled two-room interior is designed by Jim Yarmer).

The trouble with all this is not the concept (which is rich in implication) but the airless plot, the endless, overheated chatter, the excessive length and the curious lack of interest built into Holmes, both in the writing and in Vale's performance.

In pants or not, Holmes is off-putting instead of magnetic, towering, droll or clever--all the qualities you admire in "The Collected Works" or the Basil Rathbone movies. There's something smirky and insufferably self-satisfied about this Holmes. Perhaps worst of all is that Holmes is short, the shortest person on stage, even shorter than the cozy landlady (the wonderfully vivid veteran Olive Dunbar, the production's strongest actor).

Holmes may be a woman (most of us can live with that), but she's got to have height, and she's got to be physically commanding, preferably tall and dapper. (By the way, most of the costumes, designed by Bonita Friedericy, are indeed dapper.)

There's also one regrettable moment in which Holmes (Vale) bares her breasts while undressing alone in her bedroom. It's totally gratuitous, even if her male disguise is convincing.

Of course, the production is harmless. The trouble is that, with the exception of a few touches (Dunbar's housekeeper, Kurtz's Watson and Smith's interloper) it's charmless and not much fun.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "221 B Baker Street."

Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

Price: $10 to $12.

Call: (818) 769-PLAY.

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