The Real Inspector Hound is an early (1968) Tom Stoppard spoof-whodunit in which theater critics turn out to be the bad guys. Which does not mean that they done it because this is a Stoppard play. What you get instead is a thorough deconstruction of theatrical convention and plenty of the unexpected. Unlike some other alleged Stoppard comedies, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Arcadia, he really does hatch some surefire comic devices, which the lively cast, directed by Dan Stevens in this season opener from Appleseed Productions, capably deliver. But as with the classic Agatha Christie mysteries, many, many details cannot be revealed.
At the beginning of the action, two critics, Moon (Alan Stillman) and Birdboot (Robert Kovak), are chatting in the balcony at stage right, waiting for the scheduled performance to begin. Both have some anxiety in their lives, and they don’t like each other. A second-stringer at his metropolitan daily, Moon resents the status of the principal reviewer, Higgs, and grumbles that he gets sent out only when the big guy is unavailable. “His absence validates my existence,” is his very Stoppardian lament, as he fantasizes on Higgs’ death. Then again, Moon feels superior to the third-string critic, Puckeridge.
Birdboot is a man with something to hide. Although loudly (too loudly) proclaiming his faithful love for his wife Myrtle, he revels in the power his reviews have to make a career. His recent praise for the actress who will be appearing as the younger woman, Felicity, in tonight’s play, fills him with anticipation for the action to begin. None of this is a secret to Moon.
The set of the play Moon and Birdboot are seeing looks like an Agatha Christie rural vicarage, closed off from the world. Strategically timed radio messages announce that fog is rolling across the swamps, further isolating the residence, which is called Muldoon Manor. Attending the manor is a dark-costumed servant, Mrs. Drudge (Betsy York), who speaks with a heavy Cockney accent. Those radio announcements (the voice of director Dan Stevens) tell us that an escaped madman is in the area, described as handsome, well-groomed and well-spoken. Simon Cascoyne (Scott Pflanz) pops up like a jack-in-the-box in time to coincide with the radio announcements to make sure we know they fit him. Also on the set is a body (corpse?) of a man lying beneath a sofa at stage right. Nobody pays any attention to it.
Three characters live in Muldoon Manor. First to appear is young, blonde and athletic Felicity (Joleene DesRosiers Moody), who follows a bouncing tennis ball for her entrance, measuring the distance with a tape. She has hit it so hard that it bounces through the fourth wall over to where the philandering flatterer Birdboot is sitting. We remember he has a jones for the actress. Once that fourth wall has been punctured, of course, it cannot convincingly be nailed back up. Arriving a little later is the dignified matron, Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Nora O’Dea). We have already learned that Simon has dumped Felicity for the older (but wealthier) Lady Cynthia.
Making a paradoxical entrance is Major Magnus Muldoon (Keith Arlington), half-brother of Albert Muldoon, Lady Cynthia’s husband, who disappeared 10 years ago. Although wheelchair-bound, he always makes a loud clomping on the stairs before he appears. More curiously, he sports one of the makeup room’s worst false beards. He also lusts for Lady Cynthia and therefore takes a strong dislike for Simon.
As the household is worried about the madman in the nearby foggy swamps, they are pleased that someone named Inspector Hound (Neil Gold) arrives, but he does not inspire confidence. When he recommends calling the police, voices shout that he is the police, and he responds, “So glad I’m here.”
The entire party splits up to look for the madman, leaving Simon alone on the stage. He peers at what we think is the corpse and seems to recognize the face when he is shot by an unknown assailant from offstage. First act curtain.
Meanwhile, we learn that the two critics have not been paying close attention. This does not stop them from spouting self-serving pretentious drivel, punctuated with inflated quotations in French. (“As Voltaire would say, “Voila!”) Both make displays of irrelevant erudition that do nothing to explain the play. (Who could imagine critics being guilty of such a sin?)
Toward the end of the intermission the phone on the set rings incessantly, and critic Moon, impatiently, walks on to the set to pick it up. It’s Myrtle, calling Birdboot. When Moon summons him to the set to answer Myrtle, the action of the play-within-the-play begins with Birdboot trapped in it.
To his mixed pleasure and horror, Felicity enters, repeating some of the dialogue from the first act, only the words once addressed to Simon now are said to him. This is fun for him for a while, except that Simon was shot in the first act, a fate that is coming for him. At which point Moon jumps in and takes on roles for himself and has others attributed to him. We find out further that characters who had previously appeared only in the critics’ dialogue to one another have an altered reality in the action of the play.
Stoppard is not just spoofing the conventions of mystery dramas but of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in particular. That thing is now 60 years old, and everyone who goes to live theater knows who is the real killer. So in The Real Inspector Hound, as in Dame Agatha’s chestnut, perhaps the guilty party is somebody we’ve been talking about from the very beginning but least suspect.
In a program note, director Dan Stevens describes critics as a necessary evil in the performing arts and just as easy to hate as umpires. To achieve this goal he deftly casts two performers of contrasting personae. Robert Kovak, a Russian-language authority offstage, speaks with a threatening accent. Like the movie director Erich von Stroheim, his heavy mien does not lend itself easily to comedy, making it more uproarious when he does.
Much more of the evening belongs to Appleseed veteran Alan Stillman, a man who can look different in every production. He perfectly nails Moon’s early incarnations, a mixture of resentment and spaciness, but then turns into a quick-change artist for roles Moon must assume in the mystery.
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the play that can run forever. And Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, under Dan Stevens’ brisk direction, remains as fresh as the day it was written.
This production runs through Sept. 29. See Times Table for information.