Professional blowhards like the one writing this sentence get hoisted by their own adverb-filled petards in a sublime double-feature of brisk one-acts sharing a cast and director at the Shakespeare Theatre. Tom Stoppard’s seminal parody The Real Inspector Hound, written a few years before its 1968 premiere, makes a fine post-intermission follow-up to Jeffrey Hatcher’s streamlined and metastasized update of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 sendup The Critic. (Stoppard’s original title? The Critics.) Both comedies take their inspiration from the deathless canards that reviewers 1) are clearly frustrated playwrights, directors, and/or actors, and 2) reviews are often a more reliable account of their authors’ jealousies and insecurities than of anything the critic might have witnessed on a stage.
If I may quote the most critic-proof and yet still most-written-about cultural product of the moment: It’s true. All of it. And yet both Critic and Hound acknowledge that the State of the Theatre—in 1779, in 1968, in 2149—is such that you can’t blame us if enduring so much of it makes us a little tetchy. (A contemporary take on this subject would have to acknowledge that we’re squeezing this in around our other jobs. The notion of criticism as a profession rather than an avocation was, I’m told, less exotic in 1968 than it is now.)
Stoppard had been the second-chair critic for the Bristol Evening News in the years just before he wrote his multimodal spoof, which mocks both the myopia of reviewers and the conventions of Agatha Christie’s murder-mystery play The Mousetrap. At the time, The Mousetrap was “only” about a decade into its West End run. Half a century later, it’s still running. In Stoppard’s dreamlike concoction, two critics stare out at the audience and air their rivalries and infidelities, occasionally pausing to notice the potboiler being performed on the downstage area between them and us.
“Has it started yet?” asks the tipsy Birdboot of his seemingly more studious seatmate, Moon. “Are you sure?” In Shakespeare Theatre honcho Michael Kahn’s nimble new production, the physical contrast between the two actors—as Moon, Robert Stanton’s face and body are as angular as a Daniel Clowes caricature, while John Ahlin’s Birdboot is swollen and ruddy—is just the most visible of the many layers of jokes.
Did Stoppard recommend casting the parts this way? He certainly thought of everything else. One of his best recurring gags is to put the stage directions into the mystery-players’ dialogue: “The drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence, one morning in early spring,” says servant Mrs. Drudge (Naomi Jacobson), by way of answering a telephone. Gradually, Birdboot and Moon discover themselves to be players within the play-within-a-play, wherein the dashing cad Simon Gascoyne (John Catron) toys with the hearts of both the dowager Muldoon (Charity Jones) and the springier Miss Felicity Cunningham (Sandra Struthers) while a radio broadcasts hilariously expository reports of a madman on the loose. Robert Dorfman’s Clouseau-like Inspector Hound arrives at the isolated mansion unbidden. Since he’s come all this way there had better be a murder for him to investigate.
Decades after its debut, Hound remains insoluble and strange, the product of an agile young mind driven to a fecund rage by the reductive descriptors and hoary conclusions upon which his unworthy assessors rely, present company very much included.
Mr. Dangle and Mr. Sneer (Ahlin and Dorfman, respectively), two reviewers in The Critic, act with more malice than their counterparts in Inspector Hound. They’re out to embarrass their busybody colleague Mr. Puff (Stanton), who demeans their profession by cranking out intentionally vapid endorsements of shows he hasn’t the time nor inclination to see. He’s too busy toiling over his own bloated opus, The Spanish Armada. (“What’s it about?” “The Spanish Armada.”) Costume designer Murell singles out Puff as a decadent fop even among this crowd, powdering his wig in pink, purple, and blue.
When Puff invites Dangle and Sneer to watch a run-through—one that’s long on visual effects but a little short on sense, not to mention actors—they revenge themselves upon him by convincing him the influential “Mr. Sheridan” is in the house, too. (Making the playwright an unseen character in his own show was Hatcher’s imaginative flourish.) They spend the performance offering absurd suggestions of how Puff can alter the show in real time to suit Sheridan’s taste. Advised that Sheridan can’t abide long-windedness, for example, Puff instructs his actors (Struthers and Catron, again) to speak only one of every four words in his script—they can choose which words.
There’s a simple delight in recognizing the same eight actors as they reappear from one show to the next, and they’re all clearly having fun with the extravagant style of performance this material permits. But Stanton emerges as the most valuable player before the first half is half-through, rolling his “Rs” like a motorcycle. That all this inspired silliness is happening within the walls of the Shakespeare Theatre—the very institution that a certain two-thumbed, self-regarding, semiprofessional critic has occasionally accused of trying to paper over less-than-thrilling material with exactly the sort of ornate sets and costumes that adorn The Spanish Armada—makes it all the sweeter to be able to proclaim: The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound are collectively a wild, fun-filled riot with laughs aplenty for the whole family!
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound runs until Feb. 14 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Landsburgh Theatre.