One way you can tell that Tom Stoppard's play "The Real Inspector Hound" is dated is that its plot turns on the premise that people would commit murder to get a position as a first-string drama critic.
This may have been a valid premise in the early '70s, when the play was first done, but it strains credulity today, when theater reviewing makes one a kind of sacrificial lamb for the benefit of the public. It is hardly a life of such unmitigated pleasure that one would kill for it.
The urge to kill drama critics is probably a constant, but nowadays it would not be for their jobs.
Beyond this weakness, which may not be apparent to the layman, "The Real Inspector Hound" is, like much early Stoppard, collegiate in that its basic intention is to reinforce the audience's sense of its own cleverness.
As is the case in so many of Stoppard's plays, it is constructed like those Russian dolls within dolls within dolls.
In this case, there is a murder mystery taking place in an English country house (a not very imaginative sendup of the millions of plays in this genre that have delighted English audiences for many decades).
The play is being observed by two theater critics who first comment on the action and then unexpectedly enter into it. By the end of the play, the private lives of the critics and the transparently foolish lives of the characters in the comedy-thriller have meshed in harmonious absurdity.
The idea is more amusing than its execution. The play has neither the verve of Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" nor the wit of many of Stoppard's own later plays.
The Roundabout revival, adroitly directed by Gloria Muzio, is well performed, with particularly funny work by Jeff Weiss and Rod McLachlan. Simon Jones and David Healy have a commendable aloofness and dry humor as the heroes (the critics).
The women - Patricia Conolly, J. Smith-Cameron and Jane Summerhays - handle particularly stereotyped roles well. Anthony Fusco has a suitably hail-fellow-well-met aura.
All the cast members understand their tasks well, but the material is not strong enough to reward the investment of their energies.
This is also one of the rare cases in which the play is somewhat weakened by a design idea. Instead of having the critics at the side of the stage, where they would clearly be apart from the action, in John Lee Beatty's set they are at the back of the stage, making them seem too much a part of the action. Their eventual entrance into the play seems less dramatic than it would if they had not been at the center of the action all along.
Hound is preceded by "The 15-Minute Hamlet," a reduction of Shakespeare's play to its most famous lines and the barest bones of its plot. This, too, is funnier on paper than it is on the stage, where it seems more a collegiate prank than a one-act play.
What gives "The 15-Minute Hamlet" some spin is that, having done a Reader's Digest version of the play, the cast then does an even further curtailed version. If the first version was at 45 rpm, the second is 78.
Alas, even this is not all that funny. It has none of the depth of the "Beyond the Fringe" Shakespeare parody.
Truth to tell, it doesn't even have the belly laughs of the Roundabout's own recent production of "Hamlet."
It is a daunting thing to attempt to write a review of a play in which among many other gems there are various brilliant parodies of the phoney-baloneyness of the drama critic at work, as for instance: "Let me say at once that is has been elan while at the same time avoiding eclat. Having said that, and I think it must be said, I am bound to ask - does this play know where it is going?"
Tom Stoppard, who wrote "The Real Inspector Hound," done here 20 years ago and done again, beautifully, hilariously, under Gloria Muzio's direction, in an opening last night at the Roundabout, is a man who knows where a play is going. Wheels within wheels, tricks within tricks, illusions within illusions, jest within jest, until the whole wonderful apparatus bites off its own tail and maybe yours too in a final pistol-shot burst of all-clarifying incongruity - that's "The Real Inspector Hound."
The gentleman of the elan and eclat is a drama critic for a British newspaper. His name is Moon. He is on the job, attending a mouldy mystery melodrama of the Dorothy L. Sayers sort, set in the "charming but somewhat isolated Muldoon Manor," a windy, fog-bound old dump. There is a corpse on the floor of the Manor as this play-within-the-play opens. Everybody ignores it.
Moon's problem is not - primarily - the play at hand. It is the fact that he is the second-string drama critic on his newspaper, living for years in the shadow of Higgs, the first-string critic. Tonight he's standing in for Higgs. "My presence defines his absence," he bitterly propounds to the chap in the next seat, "his absence confirms my presence, his presence precludes mine...It's not that I think I'm a better critic...I am, but it's not that."
And if Moon wouldn't exactly mind if Higgs passed on to his reward, there is, back at the paper, a third-string critic, name of Puckeridge, who must hate Moon's guts the way Moon hates Higgs'. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," Moon uneasily reflects.
The chap in the next seat is Birdboot, critic for another newspaper, stuffing his face with chocolates. Birdboot's problem isn't the play he's covering either. It's actresses; that is to say, dalliance with as many actresses as the respectably married Birdboot, "a family man devoted to my homely but good-natured wife," can lay his hands on. Two such actresses are in this very evening before us. And when Birdboot dallies, he praises - in print.
Between the acts, so to speak, the onstage phone rings, and rings, and rings. Now a minor but very nice innovation since 1972, whether by Stoppard, director Muzio, or both. Moon, who has been babbling on to compare this musty Sayersesque folderol to Kafka, Sartre, Shakespeare, etc., finally can't stand it and picks up the phone. Listens. Then, thunderstruck - and you should see actor Simon Jones being thunderstruck or, later, agape - hands it to Birdboot with an "It's for you," a piece of business and line not given to Moon in the original.
In short order, Birdboot and Moon will each be haplessly, fatally drawn into the deja-vu Pirandellian idiocy at Muldoon Manor. So much for drama criticism.
"The Real Inspector Hound" is a short play in which style is all, and Simon Jones as Moon invests every one of Stoppard's skittering, glittering words with the driest of style, as do each and all of his partners in crime: David Healy as Birdboot, Patricia Conolly as an unstoppable chairwoman, Anthony Fusco as a young rotter, Jane Summerhays and J. Smith Cameron as the ladies in the case, Jeff Weiss as a sort of Dr. Strangelove in a wheelchair, and Rod McLachlan as Inspector Hound, a British Fearless Fosdick to the jaw.
Nobody who hadn't worked on a newspaper could have written "Hound." Tom Stoppard was a young drama critic on a Bristol paper long before he ever wrote a play. This one has as curtain-raiser his "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet," a fast-forward lunatic Reader's Digest to be or not to be.
Before Tom Stoppard became a playwright, he did a stint as a theater critic. In "The Real Inspector Hound," he gets even with his former colleagues and with the hazards of the profession. With this devious theatrical comedy, nimbly revived by the Roundabout Theater Company, he kills two critical birds, or in Stoppard parlance, one Birdboot and one Moon. For a playwright, this is a case of character assassination. Clearly Mr. Stoppard had fun writing the play, a pleasure that is shared by his audience. In its time, 1971 Off Broadway, it seemed an amusing trifle. It has ripened into an amusing truffle.
At its root, it is a play on criticism. Moon is a second-string drama critic, an eternal stand-in, always a backup and never a lead singer, a role that he describes in an irate stream of resentment that identifies with all the understudies in life. Whenever Moon goes to the theater, he is affronted by the question, "Where's Higgs?" The absent Higgs is his newspaper's first-stringer, and the object of Moon's wrath. Birdboot, in contrast, represents critical complacency. A smug sybarite, he is a blurbster, reveling in the fact that one of his reviews has been reproduced in its entirety in neon at the Theater Royal. For him, no favoritism is strong enough to be labeled a conflict of interest.
As we watch Moon and Birdboot at work at play, they watch the unfolding of a creaky Agatha Christie-like whodunit in which there is a madman loose on the moors. Or is he already inside Lady Cynthia Muldoon's manor house? In rude critical fashion, Moon and Birdboot begin to compose their reviews before they see the show, each finding within the text what he chooses to find.
For Moon, who can spot high art in a flyspeck, the potboiler is "sort of a thriller," but with undercurrents: "The play, if we can call it that, and I think on balance we can, aligns itself uncompromisingly on the side of life." Birdboot is more interested in the acting, or rather, in the actresses. As a freelance philanderer, he has already had a fling with the actress playing the ingenue Felicity and now has his eye on Lady Cynthia.
During a lull in the mystery, the telephone rings on stage, and when it keeps ringing, Moon rises from his seat in the theater and answers it, thereby shattering the fourth wall. To Moon's amazement, the call is for Birdboot. Soon both critics are onstage and enmeshed in the mystery. Bodies fall, the plot spirals and three characters vie for the role of the real inspector, who is a hound but not much of a sleuth. The play wins laughs every which way and disarms all criticism. Repeatedly Mr. Stoppard writes his own review. It is Hound who observes that the show "lacks pace," that it is a "complete ragbag."
As a point of fact, "The Real Inspector Hound" is an exceedingly clever lampoon, sharply in focus and at least double-barreled in its own critical assault. But Gloria Muzio's production at the Roundabout could use more pace. The non-mysterious part moves too slowly, and not all of the actors have mastered the art of Stoppardian spontaneity.
Simon Jones, who can be a devilish comic actor, is a shade too dour as Moon; more linguistic enthusiasm would spark even more humor. David Healy has greater vim as the smarmy Birdboot. J. Smith-Cameron and Anthony Fusco are stylish poseurs as the juveniles, and Jeff Weiss dives diabolically into his role as the "wheelchair-ridden half-brother" of her ladyship's husband, "who 10 years ago went out for a walk on the cliffs and was never seen again," at least not until the last scene of the comedy. John Lee Beatty's set, which puts the audience backstage looking at the actors and the critical contingent, has its own drollness.
Along the way to the cliffhanging conclusion, Mr. Stoppard takes time to twit the twaddle critics encounter on stage and to mock the ennui of the English gentry as well as the game of bridge, which is confused with chess and bingo. Critics are the primary target. They are, in the author's words, pillified and viloried.
Real critics, of course, are impervious to criticism and always maintain their objectivity, except when they are being subjective. They are not a whit like the fictive Birdboot and Moon. This review, if we can call it that, and I think on balance we can, aligns itself uncompromisingly on the side of "The Real Inspector Hound."
To expand the audience's amusement and also the length of the evening, the play is preceded by Mr. Stoppard's "15-Minute Hamlet," an extract from his play "Dogg's Hamlet." In this curtain-raiser, a ragbag troupe does a fast forward through the high points of "Hamlet." Shakespeare (Mr. Weiss) offers a pauseless prologue that segues from "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" to "To be or not to be" and Hamlet's own "To be" rushes into "Get thee to a nunnery."
Excising Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (amply provided for in another Stoppard opus), the sketch scampers from battlements to bedchamber, inventing new and tricky transitions. Mr. Jones is a dizzy Hamlet, and Mr. Weiss switches so suddenly from Claudius to Polonius that he almost collides with himself behind the arras. "The 15-Minute Hamlet" is followed by a two-minute tongue-tripping abridgement. It is just long enough to catch the conscience of the king and the short attention span of critics like Birdboot and Moon.
Pairing Tom Stoppard's 1971 comic one-act "The Real Inspector Hound" with the playwright's crowd-pleasing curtain-raiser "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet" was a sly move from the folks at the Roundabout Theater Co. Both comedies take knowing aim at theatrical pretension, and under Gloria Muzio's direction they hit far more frequently than they miss.
"Hound" is the main attraction here. Stoppard's double-barreled blast at theater critics and legit hackery gets a careful, straightforward revival from the Roundabout. If the playwright's blend of irreverence and surrealism isn't quite as arresting as it was 20 years ago, it remains a fine, intelligent amusement.
Play focuses on two British theater critics, Moon (Simon Jones), a second-string reviewer more than a little obsessed with his publication's pecking order, and the pompous Birdboot (David Healy), a lecherous hypocrite interested mostly in the off-stage performances of the actresses he's reviewing.
Both critics are attending a performance of a creaky murder meller (a swipe at the long-running West End production of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap"), when, through various unexpected developments, they become trapped in the whodunit's action. Stoppard's play-within-a-play structure gives Muzio a shot at considerable fun, blending the at-odds acting styles of the cast members. Jones' droll, taut delivery and Healy's jovial leers play well against the overheated melodrama of the murder mystery thesps. The members of the ensemble are all solid.
Where Muzio occasionally stumbles is in her pacing. Polished direction sometimes crosses over, becoming workmanlike and, less often, sluggish. "Hound's" lunacy doesn't seem quite so lunatic in a post-"Monty Python" world and a bit of that troupe's bombastic style might have provided some welcome freshening of the 20-year-old comedy.
In fact, the director might well have taken a tip from her own work on "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet," Stoppard's charming Cliff Notes version of the Bard's masterpiece. Muzio crams not one version of "Hamlet" into the allotted timespan, but two, the second a doubletime "encore" version. Cast, same as that of "Hound," has a great time playing with Jones intoning Hamlet's lines in appropriate mock-serious style and J. Smith-Cameron doing a pleasingly ditsy Ophelia.
Tech credits for both productions are serviceable, although not particularly memorable.
Despite its minor shortcomings, the Stoppard bill makes a suitable late summer follow-up to the Roundabout's previous entry, "The Price." The company is starting the new season on solid footing.