An Inspector Calls
by J.B. Priestley
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Oh, how I wish I had liked An Inspector Calls. Washington Stage Guild’s assiduous attention to this sixty-year-old play’s period detail is an act of nobility. William Pucilowsky’s costumes are gorgeous, and make us long for the era when men could wear tuxedoes, tails and frock coats with the same insouciant grace with which we wear Dockers today. Marcus Danley’s sturdy set, Marianne Meadows’ subtle lighting, and especially Clay Teunis’ spot-on sound strive mightily, and with great success, to wipe away the wisps of the twenty-first century outside, and to plunge us into the luxurious 1912 dining room of an English clothing magnate and magistrate. The actors deliver what they can from the material, and John-Michael MacDonald in particular renders an agitated young boozehound with great intelligence and vitality. These folks all deserve to be involved with great theater.
Alas and goddam, they are not. An Inspector Calls is nothing more than a windy paean to Priestley’s vague, soap-operaish notions of socialism. The magistrate (Lawrence Redmond) and his wife (the admirable Lynn Steinmetz) are celebrating their daughter’s (Sarah Fischer) engagement to the scion of a rival clothing manufacturer (Michael Glenn). Suddenly, a mysterious Inspector (Bill Largess) arrives at the household, with news of the suicide of a young, impoverished woman. He wishes to examine the household, not because anyone was suspected of pouring the poison down the young woman’s throat, but to discover who was mean to her, or indifferent, or who took advantage of her, and to thus discover the moral culprit.
Suicide is a crime in which the victim and the criminal are the same person, of course, but to Priestley (and his mouthpiece, the Inspector) the real crime is the go-it-alone individualism endorsed a few moments before the Inspector’s arrival by the magistrate, in bombastic conversation with his son (MacDonald) and prospective son-in-law. Had Priestley’s solution to social ills been Lunestra TM, and had the Inspector upbraided the family for its failure to fully utilize this fine medication, we would have justly complained that Priestly had given us an infomercial, instead of art. But Priestley’s solution is instead a heavy dose of the old-time we’re-all-in-this-together religion, and so we give him a pass.
Priestley’s didacticism is not limited to his ultimate message. His opening scene is full of awful high-context dialogue of the I’m-sorry-your-parents-the-Duke-and-Duchess-are-on-a-cruise-to-India variety, and there is no point so trivial that Priestley cannot resist making it over and over again. Ms. Fischer as the daughter gets the worst of it. I am not sure how many times her parents ordered her to her room and she refused. I counted eight, but it might have been more. Similarly, she told her parents that they were just making things worse so many times that I almost thought that the Prophet Jeremiah had wandered on to the stage by mistake. I admire Ms. Fischer for saying the same thing over and over with such conviction, but I cannot say that I enjoyed it.
The play thrusts the Inspector into a Godlike position – not surprisingly, as he was speaking the lines which Priestley himself believed – and Largess convincingly radiated the sense of cold superiority that Priestly doubtlessly felt towards his characters. The Inspector leaves on the heels of a thundering denunciation of the family and all it stands for; thereafter, there is a plot twist and the play ends with a sort of Twilight-Zone touch. Both these latter developments are amusing but not enough to save the play.
It is not simply that I believe that Priestley’s point was so much claptrap, although I do. It is that playwriting is not the preacher’s art, it is the playwright’s. Theater can have a point of view, even Priestley’s; Arthur Miller demonstrated that with great art and effect, and Tony Kushner does so today. But audiences are moved by what happens to characters they come to care about, not to dead people offstage. Lessons are taught by powerful, compelling characters in conflict (see, for example, The Crucible). They are not taught when the playwright’s views are mouthed by the Almighty’s second cousin, and everyone else’s views are voiced by buffoons. Audiences are won over when they see the playwright’s truth with their own eyes, played out on stage, not when it is bellowed at them by a cop.
I say all this with great respectfulness towards Washington Stage Guild, which along with American Century Theater lovingly resurrects plays of the last century which are no longer commonly being done. This is a difficult and painstaking task – a sort of theater archeology – and when it works (as in, for example, ACT’s brilliant Moby Dick Rehearsed a couple of years ago) it is a wonder, a jewel and a joy. When it doesn’t work – and I say with respect and regret that I do not believe it works here – it is still an honorable thing, which does its makers proud.
An Inspector Calls plays Thursdays through Sundays at Washington Stage Guild, 1901 14th Street NW, until November 26. Thursday shows are at 7.30; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2.30. Tickets are $35, except that Friday and Saturday evenings are $40. For reservations, call 240.582.0050 or go to http://www.stageguild.org/.