What a treat it is when a skilled playwright applies his considerable resources to make us laugh. And when you combine the resulting script with a solid production from a theater which delights in intelligent plays, you get a show like the Rogue Theatre's The Real Inspector Hound, by English playwright Tom Stoppard.
Stoppard might be best known for his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1968. Best Play Tony honors have also been granted to Travesties in 1976, The Real Thing in 1984 and The Coast of Utopia in 2007. Stoppard also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1998.
The Real Inspector Hound, first produced in 1968, is a one-act play which is part-parody and part-satire, with a healthy helping of absurdist sensibility stirred into the mix—which is characteristic of most of his work. Here, Stoppard uses the play-within-a-play convention, but in such a unique way that the convention becomes, well, unconventional.
As we, the audience, direct our attention to the set, we are looking at a sort of a mirror image of ourselves: another audience has gathered to watch a play, which turns out to be Stoppard's send-up of whodunits à la Agatha Christie. Two critics take their seats. Birdboot (Nic Adams) is the usual reviewer for his publication, but Moon (Matt Bowdren) is the backup critic for his, standing in for first-stringer Higgs. "Where's Higgs?" Birdboot asks repeatedly of Moon, and although Moon offers an answer each time, Birdboot doesn't seem to hear. Stoppard not only takes a swipe at Birdboot's lack of listening skills, which one might expect from a reviewer, but also sets up what turns out to be a critical question as the play spins into the unexpected.
As the play within a play begins, we learn that at the isolated Muldoon Manor, it is feared that a murdering lunatic is at large. We know this because the housekeeper, Mrs. Drudge (Cynthia Meier), has a knack for turning on the radio at just the right moment to hear critical information. However, she's not quite so astute in her cleaning chores, totally overlooking a dead body in plain sight. In fact, we get a lot of information from the characters' straightforward but graceless stating of the facts. For example, in the first moments of the play, Mrs. Drudge answers the telephone, "Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring."
As their play progresses, Birdboot, annoyed by an incessantly ringing phone which none of the actors in the play respond to, steps onto the stage to answer it. Moon is shocked—this is not right; order has been violated. What happens now?
Stoppard takes great delight in turning all kinds of expectations on their heads. This not only entertains, but often sheds light on surprising subjects and themes. He blurs lines and ignores boundaries. He cleverly sends up critics (he was one before his playwriting career took off) and formulaic plays.
But this doesn't mean that Stoppard operates wholly with serious intent. Stoppard's play flirts with all kinds of issues: the nature of reality; how roles defined by one world are transformed when drawn mysteriously into another; that mocking just one convention can call into question the entire order of things; that the parallel parts of our lives can create havoc if they intersect. But Inspector Hound is foremost the playful invention of a thoughtful playwright.
Director Joseph McGrath has gathered a capable cast, including the characters of Muldoon Manor, who gamely embrace their roles, treading a skillful line between character and caricature. The sparse set, designed by McGrath and lit by Clint Bryson, works well enough, and Meier, who designed the costumes, has outdone herself in creating the Sherlock Holmes-like garb for David Greenwood's Inspector Hound. A sillier vision can hardly be imagined.
Adams and Bowdren excel as the critics, at first grounded in a predictable world and experimenting with ridiculously hyperbolic phrases to describe the theater experience to their readers ("the skeleton in the closet is now coming home to roost"); later, they grow increasingly unhinged when they become players in a make-believe world which is far more treacherous than their familiar and "real" one.
Prior to the one-hour Inspector Hound, McGrath and Bowdren break us in with another Stoppard piece, New-Found-Land. It is almost always performed with a companion piece, Dirty Linen, which Rogue has declined to do. Although Bowdren's monologue—which recounts a train journey across a mythic and cliché-rich America—is quite well-done, the piece is rather unremarkable.
But The Real Inspector Hound is worth waiting around for. Its sharp wit—and equally sharp turns—are executed well and provide an evening of smart entertainment.