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BWW Review: Spooky Action Theater's THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND

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How can you not love a play about theater critics?

BWW Review:  Spooky Action Theater's THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND

How could you not love a play about theater critics? Especially where, as in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, now available in virtual format through Spooky Action Theater's website, the critics are pompous, abrasive and criminally uninformed. Moon (Robert Bowen Smith) and Birdboot (Steve Beall), critics both, are the only audience - perhaps we should say witnesses - to the butchery known as Murder in Muldoon Manor. Muldoon is an enterprise so catastrophic that it makes Nothing On (the calamity being performed by the actors in Noises Off) seem like Beckett, or Shakespeare, or - Stoppard.

But it doesn't matter; Birdboot has already written his review (in collaboration with other critics, in the bar, before the play), and his principal objective is to heap praise on an actor with whom he wants to sleep (or two of them, to be honest). Moon, on the other hand, cares only that he supplants his paper's first-string critic, Higgs (Richard Henrich), and is prone to monologuing about the existential dread his current second-string status inspires, even when Muldoon is in - I use the term advisedly - motion.

A few words about this motion. In the fearfully isolated Muldoon Manor, the housekeeper, Mrs. Drudge (Wendy Wilmer), hears a radio report about a savage madman believed to be in proximity to - Muldoon Manor. In the meantime, Simon Gascoigne (Danny Cackley) appears suddenly. He has courted the Manor's houseguest, Felicity (Jackie Madejski), but now his amorous intent turns to the Manor's mistress, Cynthia (Carolyn Kashner). Alas, Cynthia still pines for her long-missing husband, Albert. Notwithstanding the romantic tension, the trio decide to play an incomprehensible card game for four, including Albert's wheelchair-bound brother, Magnus (Matty Griffiths). And then - a shot rings out. Soon, Inspector Hound (James Sullivan, who is also the radio voice) appears.

Well, that's enough of that. The best part of this 84-minute souffle of a play is Stoppard's sendup of the critics' self-importance. They draft their reviews as the play proceeds, reading them aloud without considering their effect on the actors - or, for that matter, their relationship to reality.

Here, let me quote from my favorite: Moon, whose objective is not to review truthfully but to write a review which will make him a more important critic than Higgs, writes about this grade-Z play:

"There are moments, and I would not begrudge it this, when the play, if we can call it that, and I think on balance that we can, aligns itself uncompromisingly on the side of life. Je suis, it seems to be saying, ergo sum. But is that enough? I think we are entitled to ask....I think we are entitled to ask - and here one is irresistibly reminded of Voltaire's cry, 'Viola!' - I think we are entitled to ask - Where is God?" Birdboot, terminally confused, searches his program book in response.

Professor Irwin Corey could not have said it better. The play, which spends a great deal of time on the pomposity and venality of the critics and the awfulness of Muldoon Manor, in its last quarter devolves into an interesting bit of metatheater, the details of which I dasn't tell you.

This is a very funny play, but is it a great production? I'm sorry to report that the result is mixed. Spooky Action has elected to film the Muldoon Manor portion of the play from sites remote from the theater, and as a result the actors appear as floating heads. Periodically, the characters must reach for telephones, playing cards and whatnot, and when they do, hands and arms appear in video compartments quite separate from their bodies. In a scene in which Gascoigne and Cynthia are required to kiss passionately, their oscillating heads are separated by a video block showing the background. It looks amateurish and ugly.

Of course, maybe that's the point. Muldoon Manor, after all, is an amateurish and ugly play. It is possible that Spooky Action decided to show what such a play might look like during the current plague, where human-to-human contact carries significant risk. Olney used this remote-filming technique to good effect in a production of The Humans early in the pandemic. We adjusted to seeing the six characters represented by floating heads, and, by finding a way to produce in the face of Covid, Olney gave a one-finger salute to coronavirus on all of our behalves.

But The Humans is almost all dialogue; characters move up and down a spiral staircase, but need not kiss, shake each other, pick up phones, move furniture and do the other exercise required by Muldoon, and thus by Hound. Are we therefore to believe that Moon and Birdboot are watching a bad virtual production, as opposed to a bad in-person production? If so, why are they at the theater, instead of home squinting at their computer, as I was? And how is it that they eventually come to step onto the stage?

The distracting nature of the Muldoon presentation is magnified by the fact that the dialogue is so deliberately bad. Ideally, you should be giggling and snorting over the play's gawky lines, but here you will, I'm afraid, be thinking about why Magnus' head is floating over everyone else's. It is a short walk from there to thinking about what's on your desk for tomorrow, or the Nats' selloff, or - worst of all - politics.

It's really too bad, since most of the work done on stage (or whatever) is quite good. The Muldoon cast plays it as it should be played - as good actors trapped in a bad play. The script gives the characters no emotional depth - it barely gives them coherence - but the actors hit the black-and-white notes accurately, truthfully, and without fuss. Of course, because of the electronic format, they look forward most of the time, which adds to the air of unreality.

Stoppard doesn't give the actors who play Moon and Birdboot a great deal to work with either, since he appears to have written Hound principally for laughs. But Smith and Beall squeeze out every last drop of personality Stoppard put into their characters. The oleaginous Birdboot is the real hound, lusting after Cynthia after squiring Felicity the night before, expecting that his exalted state as a critic would cause them to reciprocate (this never, never happens in real life). Beall is spot-on in this, displaying a spectacularly oblivious self-confidence so radiant that I expected there would be a grease spot on his chair when he got up.

Smith as Moon is given the opposite note. He is besotted by despair, his entire world shrunk into a single question: when would he, rather than Higgs, be the first-string critic? Smith gets that, and we feel his pain, up to a point. In the production I saw, Smith seemed to be fighting his lines during the early going, even at one point looking down, as if at a script. He grew stronger as the play went on, and in later productions I don't expect this to be a problem.

Oh, well. Since I wish to be Broadway World's first-string critic, let me close on this note: here one is irresistibly reminded of Voltaire's cry, "Viola!" - I think we are entitled to ask - Where is God?

The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Richard Henrich. Featuring Robert Bowen Smith, Steve Beall, Wendy Wilmer, Danny Cackley, Jackie Madejski, Carolyn Kashner, Matty Griffiths, James Sullivan and Richard Henrich. Videographer: Tim Phillips, assisted by Lisa Hodsoll. Video editor: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Audio Editor and Composer: David Crandall. Produced by Spooky Action Theater. Reviewed by Tim Treanor

The Real Inspector Hound
Run time: 1 hour: 22 minutes
Tickets: $20 - $10
https://www.spookyaction.org/the-real-inspector-hound.html


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