The critic Sneer (Robert Dorfman) is an argumentative, dyspeptic man with a heart of rubble, who is never more happy than when he is in distress and telling you about it. His colleague Dangle (John Ahlin) is — well, let’s just say it: a pompous horse’s behind, who is bored witless by newspaper stories about the calamities facing his nation (this is 1779, a very bad year for England) and can’t wait to get to the theater news — and, more importantly, to read his latest review in print. They are the heroes of Richard Sheridan’s The Critic, because everyone else is much worse.
The Shakespeare Theatre has commissioned the prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to adapt — rewrite might be a better word — Sheridan’s script, and those of you who are familiar with the original will recognize it in the rollicking production at the Lansburgh, but will still be in for some surprises.
Dangle’s wife (Naomi Jacobson) still pelts her husband with icy contempt, to which Dangle, who hears only his own voice, is impervious. The fantastic Sir Fretful Plagiary (John Cantron) still appears, begging the critics for constructive advice on his interminable play, and howling in pain when he gets it.
Best of all, we still have the arrival of the hysterical Puff (the hysterically funny Robert Stanton), the avatar of the New Criticism. Puff, in powder, breech coat and stockings and wearing a ridiculous wig, is a figure as modern as any spin doctor operating today. Having successfully completed a career as a con man, he has entered a new profession: theater critic. He doesn’t actually see the plays — he’s too busy — but he gets the outline from the author, and thereafter attaches one of this all-purpose phrases to the production: “hand of a master”, “fund of genuine humor”, “Mr. Dodd was astonishingly great in the character of Sir Harry.” (I am quoting from Sheridan’s original, which I have in front of me; Hatcher’s adaptation uses different words, but are to the same point.)
This is actually the plague of Internet theater criticism; critics, of course, don’t take a fee from the theater as Puff does, but are aware that extravagant praise will be spread all over social media by friends of the recipient, thus earning them page views and making their product more palatable to advertisers.
The thing is that Mr. Puff has written a play (I know — a critic writing a play: absurd) and he wants Dangle and Sneer to see it in rehearsal. They do, so we as well get to see The Spanish Armada.
Oh, my dear God. It is a train wreck in slow motion; it is a herd of lemmings going over a cliff; it is Rick Perry trying to remember which Agencies he would cut from the Federal government.
Puff explains that he makes his dramatic choices for commercial reasons; no matter how preposterous the action is, if it has been done in a successful play, it is done in The Spanish Armada. Sneer decides (this is Hatcher’s invention) to have a little fun with Puff. He intimates that the theater’s manager — Sheridan himself! — has certain likes and dislikes, thus causing the tyro playwright to make on-the-spot modifications, often with tragic results. The most significant of these come when Sneer reveals that Sheridan hates plays about foreigners, a most vexing problem for the author of The Spanish Armada.
At this point, comedy becomes farce, and, when Puff rolls out some special effects which were probably unavailable in Sheridan’s time, slapstick. Director Michael Kahn moves us along crisply. Sneer and Dangle provide droll commentary — Dorfman is particularly good at this — as calamity follows calamity, and if you think of Mystery Theater 3000 as you watch this, you probably won’t be the only one in the audience who does so.
The unquestioned low point in this Spanish Armada rehearsal — and thus the high point in The Critic — is when a hapless prompter (Hugh Nees) is drafted into fighting a stage duel with the antagonist (Catron) because every other male actor is unavailable. The prompter, through his blundering, manages to knock his opponent out, and is thereafter commissioned to duel himself, thrusting, parrying, stabbing and dying in the space of two minutes or so. Nees is magnificent.
If there is a moral to be drawn from all this — and I’m not sure there is — it is that the critic, as arrogant and mean-spirited as he may be, has a useful purpose: to protect us from dreck like The Spanish Armada. To those who believe that critics are people of small gifts who exist to belittle great art…well, Sheridan is not of your party.
* * *
Neither is Tom Stoppard, if we are to judge by the second half of the night’s twin bill, The Real Inspector Hound. The critics Moon (Stanton) and Birdboot (Ahlin) are assigned to review a sixth-rate whodunit, but they have lost their way morally (physically, they’re right where they should be — the only audience in a dimly-lit theater).
Moon, who is desperate to become his paper’s first-string critic, is determined to endow the nonsense before him with earth-changing importance. Birdboot, who like Puff has already conceived his review before seeing the show (“Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar and decided it’s first-class family entertainment, but if it goes on beyond half-past ten it’s self-indulgent.”), is principally concerned with using his powerful position to seduce the ingénue. (Note to Editor: this never, ever happens in real life).
The less said about Hound the better, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Stoppard’s play depends on surprises, and I would ruin the effect by giving you more than the barest outline. The play Moon and Birdboot watch is a cliché-ridden mess, involving a remote mansion, a murderous escaped lunatic (fortunately, every time someone turns on the radio, a newscaster [Brit Herring] interrupts to post the latest on the murderous escaped lunatic), a romantic triangle, a missing husband, a swain who may also be a murderous escaped lunatic, and so on. Moon and Birdboot, like Sneer and Dangle in the earlier piece, exchange observations during the action, thus shielding us from the awful dialogue “on stage.”
Doing theater badly is easy, but creating bad theater is an art form, and Stoppard, like Sheridan before him, has it down to a T. Charity Jones is the wife of the missing husband, who still carries a torch for him though he’s been gone for ten years; Sandra Struthers is the ingénue, here the target of the swain/possible murderous escaped lunatic (Catron); Nees is the missing man’s brother, wheelchair-bound and full of directionless anger; Dorfman is Inspector Hound, or one of them. Jacobson is the dour housekeeper and she is fabulous; virtually without lines, she manages to consistently underscore how bad this play is.
THE CRITIC & THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND
January 5 – February 14, 2016
Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $108
Tuesdays thru Sundays
And then the play turns in on itself. If theater is life with the boring parts taken out, it would do well to remember that the boring parts are what keep us safe, and, generally, sane. The nameless play’s actors, having ginned up phony emotions to surmount its tepid tropes, turn to the story a second time, with passion, and deadly consequences.
Moon and Birdboot are dishonest, and thus bad critics and bad men (unlike Dangle and Sneer, who are also bad men but at least honest). Hound, like much of Stoppard’s early work, fuses art and reality, and if you are one of the folks who believes that art imitates life, I hope this play changes your mind.
The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound are performed in rep. Directed by Michael Kahn, assisted by Craig Baldwin. Featuring: John Ahlin, John Catron, Robert Dorfman (who also served as fight captain), Naomi Jacobson, Charity Jones, Hugh Nees, Robert Stanton, Sandra Struthers and the voice of Brit Herring. Scenic Design: James Noone . Costume Design: by Murell Horton . Lighting Design by Mark McCullough. Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt . Composer: Adam Wernick . Joseph Smelser, assisted by Elizabeth Clewley. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.