Ever had the hankering to stop being a seat warmer and jump up onstage to join the action? Careening out of your comfort zone and inadvertently breaking the fourth wall are two of the themes in Tom Stoppard’s affable send-up of pat murder mysteries and theater critic pretensions, The Real Inspector Hound.
MetroStage has an affinity for Mr. Stoppard’s plays, having produced a luminous production of the wistful Heroes in 2009 that was directed by John Vreeke, who dexterously handles the farcical trappings and energetic banter in Hound. The actors from Heroes return for this latest venture into Stoppardian territory—Ralph Cosham, John Dow and Michael Tolaydo—and they are joined by local stage favorites Catherine Flye, Kimberly Gilbert and Emily Townley.
Written in the 60s and affectionately recalling Mr. Stoppard’s stint as a pseudonymous drama critic early in his career, The Real Inspector Hound is sheer entertainment and not emblematic of the playwright’s many works that combine intellectual depth and dazzling wordplay.
Hound’s play-within-a-play conceit takes place in a British theater, where a groaner of a whodunit in the mold of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap lumbers along, a murder mystery set in the fog-shrouded environ of Muldoon Manor. The hilariously dour housekeeper Mrs. Drudge (Miss Flye) is called upon to rattle off miles of exposition, including answering the phone with “the drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring” and also explains that roads lead to the manor but “mysteriously” do not go in the opposite direction.
Beyond the footlights, two theater critics Moon (Mr. Cosham) and Birdboot (Mr. Tolaydo) sit in their velvet seats and comment on what’s occurring onstage, as well as other topics that arise during the evening. Birdboot is a jovial cheerleader who speaks in sound bites and blurbs and cranks out his reviews on the spot–ever-mindful of how they would look on a marquee or in a newspaper ad.
With his shock of messy red hair and loud tie, Birdboot is an unabashed extrovert with a connoisseur’s eye for female beauty. All the while painting himself as the pinnacle of integrity, he nonetheless enjoys the company of comely actresses, most recently Felicity (a comically wide-eyed Miss Gilbert), the play’s ingénue, whom he describes as “a toiler in the vineyard of greasepaint.”
Moon is like his name, a broody chap with a chip on his shoulder as big as his droopy bow-tie. Lamenting his lot as a second-string reviewer—a constant refrain in the play is the question “Where’s Higgs?” a reference to the star critic—Moon sinks into glumness as the whodunit unfolds lumpily under his dolorous gaze. His morose mien is belied by increasingly pompous critiques of the play, at one point saying it possesses a certain “je suis ergo sum” and contains elements of “Kafka, Sartre, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Dante, Dorothy L. Sayers and Van Gogh.”
All journalistic impartiality goes out the window when Birdboot becomes smitten with the glamorous romantic lead Cynthia (a fabulously over-the-top Miss Townley) and, unable to restrain himself, joins the play and assumes the role of the two-timing playboy Simon Gascoyne. Not to be outdone, Moon leaps into the footlights, taking on the dream part of the analytical detective Inspector Hound. The real Simon (Doug Krehbel) and Inspector Hound (David Elias) slip into the critic’s seats, offering pithy assessments of what is now a brazen farce.
Hound wittily lampoons the conventions of murder mysteries where not a whit of ambiguity remains after the final curtain. That Moon and Birdboot would lavish so much attention and verbiage on this theatrical piffle adds to the play’s sense of absurdity. It also inadvertently makes you wonder why so much talent and care at MetroStage is involved in something equally slight. So Hound is a play-within-a-play that parodies insubstantial fare with 80 minutes of trifle. Got that?
You’re probably not supposed to think that hard, instead get carried away by the pleasure of the performances, especially Miss Flye’s deadpan double-takes and deliciously demented spins on the hackneyed dialogue. Mr. Cosham’s hound-dog demeanor and high-falutin’ expressions of inferiority perfectly embody Birdboot’s splintered spirit and Mr. Dow has his moments as the speed-racing Magnus, a wheelchair-bound guest at Muldoon Manor.
You could never call Hound purebred Stoppard, but it is one of his mongrel bits of fun.
The Real Inspector Hound
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by John Vreeke
Produced by MetroStage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 1 hr and 15 minutes with no intermission
David Hoffman . Fairfax TimesJordan Wright . Alexandria TimesSusan Berlin . Talkin’BroadwayJordan Wright . Alexandria TimesTrey Graham . Washington City PaperCelia Wren . Washington PostBarbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You