The Real Inspector Hound/ Shakespeare & Company/Elayne P. Bernstein Theater/ Lenox, Mass.
LONG BEFORE the leading lady in her wine-colored satin gown has back-somersaulted to center stage, and before an overwrought lover has emerged from behind the chaise, kissing a corpse, we in the audience know who’s boss. It’s director Jonathan Croy.
Physical comedy can be great; but writers are supposed to tell us what it all means! You know, “life,” “the human condition” and all that. Playwrights have an additional obligation: keeping us awake after a good meal and two glasses of wine. In this case, director Croy grabs the latter obligation in two fists, leaving Stoppard to provide some witty lines, a neat, if unsubtle, mystery-play structure, and mere “life” and “the human condition.”
Two of the characters in “The Real Inspector Hound” are writers — sort of. They are theater critics named Birdboot and Moon. Throughout Act I they sit in the audience, chatting about themselves and about the on-stage mystery play.
Moon (in reaching-for-it vocabulary) could probably explain to us that the “life” of the play he is watching takes place on a small, isolated planet (an Agatha Christie isolated manor house) in which “actors” act, exchange roles and engage in deception, disguise, sex, murder and status-mongering — completely unconscious that they are encased in the formulas and laws of physics as determined by the great god Christie — except when Stoppard intervenes to mock.
Moon’s serial name-dropping convinces us that he has read all the proper forerunners of Cliff Notes. Birdboot, the sex-pig (I have always found the term “womanizer” a bit euphemistic), explains his habit of giving on-stage “birds” (known as “chicks” on this side of the Atlantic) rave reviews in exchange for… well, we all understand which leg the boot is on.
In Act II, the two critics are deprived of the illusion that they can sit outside and comment on “the human condition.” They are sucked into the play and quickly turn into willing “actors,” which, of course, they were from the beginning. Got that?
One of my favorite Croy staging bits is a ritualistic card game in which, at certain moments, the four rise, execute graceful, unison turns to a new position at the table, then smugly, balletically ease into their new seats. The rituals of British manor-house entertainments have been properly, wordlessly skewered.
Croy’s take on the play and his outrageous physical comedy bits are all deftly executed by a handsome young cast. (It takes cool heads and keen eyes to keep “delightfully outrageous” from slipping into “mildly contemptible.”)
In the dénoument department, Christie does it better than Stoppard. Naturally he could not do slavish Christie! However, the turn he takes is too convoluted to be satisfying. It ain’t “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern…” but who cares? Some minor brain tickle and some well-worked laugh muscles make it all worthwhile.
Shakespeare & Company takes great care in warning theater reviewers that they are going to be satirized for ignorance, pomposity and various verbal infelicities, so I approached this play apotropaically. (Hah! To play my role properly, I filched that word from Moon–via Christopher Hitchens! Or was it John Simon? William F. Buckley? Tom Stoppard, perchance?)