Although playwright Tom Stoppard once said that The Real Inspector Hound is not about theater critics, it’s difficult to believe him. He’s pulling our leg. He’s a master at that.
Of course, this meta-farce is about critics and how they view what they’re paid to review; how they want their words to matter however worthless the play; how some use their professional clout to advance in the bedroom; how some want to advance at the newspaper because they think they’re entitled. And that’s where we find our two critics – at the theater watching a banal, rudimentary who-done-it, á la Agatha Christie.
There is a dead body on the floor behind the sofa. No one notices it. The maid, Mrs. Drudge (Michelle Britton), sweeping the carpet, rolls the couch over the body to clean the rug, hiding it from sight.
The critics Moon (John Feltch) and Birdboot (Paul Hope) – very much existential versions of Waldorf and Statler from the Muppet Show – somewhat distracted and writing their reviews as the play progresses, soliloquize on their life while taking notes. They talk among themselves as the murder mystery at the secluded manor house goes on.
Moon is the bombastic dreamer, hating his job as second-string critic, filling in at the last minute for Higgs, the paper’s star critic. He has no meaning, he muses, “I think I must be waiting for Higgs to die …Half afraid that I will vanish when he does.” To prove his worth, he over-analyzes the slight play, infusing it with intense meaning and import, comparing it to the likes of Sartre, Kafka, Dante, Shakespeare, Van Gogh. “Already in the opening stages we note the classic impact of the catalytic figure, the outsider, plunging through to the center of an ordered world.” Which exactly mirrors what is happening in the play-within-the-play. Everyone suffers from a comic, not-so-comic, identity crises.
Birdboot writes for another paper. His review tends to the superficial. He keeps photos of his latest rave review that was printed in neon as an ad at the last theater. But what really interests him is the ingenue. He protests to Moon that he’s a happily married man, although Moon has seen him with the young actress the night before. And what is happening on stage? Yes, infidelity among the guests.
Stoppard’s a pro at linking events into neat packages. He mocks the conventions of a murder mystery with its too explicit expositions and coincidences – when Mrs. Drudge picks up the telephone, she answers with, “Hello, the drawing-room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring.” She speaks in nothing but exposition, and Britton has clueless down pat. Then as the play-within-the-play reaches its first climax, he places his two protagonists squarely into the plot. He plays his ace, and Inspector Hound flies into the truly absurd.
Annoyed at a ringing telephone that no actor appears to answer, Birdboot walks onto the stage and picks it up. It’s his wife, accusing him of sleeping with Felicity, the ingenue (Alexandra Szeto-Joe). Dismissing her, the scene replays, and now he’s stuck in it, taking the part of philandering Simon (Philip Hays). Life and theater come full circle. Moon implores him to come back to his seat, but Birdboot’s fixated anew on the beautiful widow Cynthia, lady of the manor (Elizabeth Marshall Black). Besotted like Simon, he can’t help himself.
The twists, like any average who-done-it arrive fast and furious. Moon is sucked in, too, and the revelations, complications, and murders are satisfyingly loopy. Everyone falls under Stoppard’s spell, and director Claire Hart-Palumbo keeps the ham at bay and the wheels spinning brightly. The pros in the cast handle Stoppard’s knotty dialogue with wonderful assurance. The tongue is never far from the cheek. When Inspector Hound (Jim Salners) arrives through the flooded bog, he wears inflatable kiddie pontoons over his galoshes; Magnus (David Harlan) zips around in a wheelchair, knocking over any rivals for Cynthia’s affections. The satire’s front and center, but when Moon bemoans his fate, Feltch soars and the fun is pierced by real ache. Comedy with a kick.
This early work (1968), coming two years after his first great international hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, (and way before classics The Real Thing, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia), is minor Stoppard, and even at 70 minutes, it runs out of steam near the end, but you can’t fault its surface brilliance, its wordplay, its absurdist fun, and its skewering of musty theater convention and even mustier theater critics. There’s satisfaction in that, I think.
Performances continue through August 7 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater-Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. Patrons are required to show proof of a negative COVID test (within 48 hours) or a vaccination card. Masks are strongly recommended but not required. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $35-$59.