Theater review: Steel Beam ably revives Stoppard's 'Real Inspector Hound'
"The Real Inspector Hound" -- ★ ★ ★
"The one thing that 'The Real Inspector Hound' isn't about, as far as I'm concerned, is theater critics," said playwright Tom Stoppard, whose quote comes from a 1994 compilation titled "Tom Stoppard in Conversation."
Not entirely, but they figure prominently in Stoppard's absurdly farcical, play-within-a-play that skewers critics and the Agatha Christie-style murder-mysteries that have long been a theater staple, as evidenced by the enduring (66 years and counting) production of Christie's "The Mousetrap" in London's West End.
But this 1968 one-act, in a competent revival at Steel Beam Theatre under director Annie Slivinski, is more than a parody. Well-crafted with the trademark wordplay for which the brainy British writer is known, "The Real Inspector Hound" is about identity: specifically its fluidity and how difficult it is to reconcile.
The time is the present. The place is a London theater. The central characters are a pair of critics: The pretentious Moon (Benedict L. Slabik III) is a disaffected second-stringer angling to replace Higgs, the paper's lead critic. Moon dreams of a "coup d'etat by the second rank -- troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies, magicians sawed in half by indefatigably smiling glamour girls ... an army of assistants and deputies, the seconds-in-command, the runners-up, the right hand men -- storming the palace gates."
Birdboot (R. Scott Purdy) is the smug veteran who works for a rival publication, writes in cliches and coasts on his reputation. A womanizer, the married Birdboot uses his position as critic to advance the careers of young actresses he attempts to seduce.
They're reviewing a whodunit set at the secluded estate Muldoon Manor where Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Heidi Swarthout) is entertaining guests, including her friend Felicity (Mary McCormack) and playboy neighbor Simon Gascoyne (Justin Schaller). They're joined by Magnus Muldoon (Tom Ochocinski), half-brother of Cynthia's husband, Albert, who disappeared without a trace 10 years earlier. Also on hand is the housekeeper Mrs. Drudge (Mary Griffin) who supplies voluminous exposition and comprehensive back stories for the other characters, yet fails to notice the dead body, partly obscured by a sofa. (In all fairness, none of the other characters in the whodunit-within-the-play notice the unidentified body either).
Eventually, Inspector Hound (Jake Busse), hot on the trail of an escaped madman, arrives at the manor and discovers the dead body. Soon after, the ringing of a prop phone prompts Birdboot and Moon to insert themselves into the action where they're mistaken for Simon and Hound. Meanwhile, Simon and Hound take over the roles of critics Birdboot and Moon (a not so subtle jab at the job, suggesting anyone can perform it).
To be successful, a farce requires a cast that is confident, committed and quick. Not every member of Steel Beam's ensemble was up to speed opening night. Still, Slivinski's production moves briskly and overall, her cast is able.
The engaging Busse (whose springer spaniel socks are the perfect accessory) brings zaniness to the titular role. Griffin makes a canny, comical Mrs. Drudge. And, as the dissatisfied Moon, eager to replace first-stringer Higgs, Slabik ideally balances resentment and resignation, delivering Moon's second-tier calls to arms with equal parts passion and futility.
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Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 28
Running time: About 75 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Nearby street and garage parking available
Rating: For teens and older