THERE'S SOMETHING about English country houses that attracts a corpse. Walk into any Thropshire drawing room, peruse your surroundings carefully, and if they belong to a spacious mansion located on isolated and foggy cliffs, if the house is filled with unexpected and not altogether reputable guests, if, in particular, a wandering lunatic has just dropped in for tea, you will undoubtedly find a dead body lying behind the divan or under the sideboard. The laws of the country house weekend require it. The cast of wonderfully suspicious characters who have gathered in the neighborhood--the long-lost cousins and tormented heiresses--would feel cheated without one, the butler would probably lose his job.
In The Real Inspector Hound. Tom Stoppard has carefully avoided violating this unwritten but nevertheless universal truth. In the drawing room of Muldoon Manor (one fine morning in early spring) he arranges a collection of classic whodunit players. There is the lovely Lady Muldoon whose husband disappeared mysteriously over the cliffs 10 years ago, her bright young friend Felicity Cunningham; Simon Gascoyn, their dashing sometime lover who may be the madman police are searching for, a Muldoon half-brother confined to a wheel-chair and a creepy housekeeper named Mrs. Drudge who enters a room at all the wrong moments. A corpse lies sprawled under a sofa, unnoticed for most of the evening.
To this time-worn situation Stoppard adds a hilarious and original twist: the cast includes a pair of critics, who watch the action with the rest of the audience. Their pre-curtain conversation begins the play and, as the evening progresses, they gradually get involved in the drama on stage, more so than reviewers generally do.
Birdboot and Moon, as Stoppard has named the critics, have obsessions that dominate their thinking throughout the night. Moon is a second-string critic crazy with hatred for the first-string. "Perhaps he's dead at last, or trapped in a lift somewhere or succumbed to amnesia, wandering the land with his turn-ups stuffed with ticket stubs," he muses. Birdboot is interested only in ogling young starlets and keeping smut out of the theatre. Fulfilling what must be every playwright's ultimate fantasy, Stoppard uses the self-centered antics of these two to mock the whole business of theatre criticism viciously. In the process, he produces an extremely funny play.
BROOKE BARR'S production at South House stays close to the script, which is just fine. She has placed the two critics half-way between the stage and the real audience--because of the theatre's seating arrangement we don't realize that the man assiduously reading his program and taking notes of the set before the play begins is actually part of the cast. Only with the arrival of Birdboot, clad in yellow, green and plaid and munching on chocolates, does the audience get its first hint that something unusual is afoot. The pair discusses Higgs, the first-string, and launches us into a fast-paced, clever hour-and-a-half's entertainment which only occasionally verges on the flip.
As the frustrated Moon, David Edelstein is the undeniable star of the show. An accomplished critic himself, Edelstein infuses his running analysis of the drivel that is going on on stage with polished pomposity. Without losing control or missing a beat, he spews lines like this:
Already in the opening stages we note the classic impact of the catalytic figure--the outsider--plunging through to the centre of an ordered world and setting up the disruptions...which unless I am much mistaken will strip these comfortable--these crudaceans in the rock pool of society--strip them of their shells and leave them exposed as the trembling raw meat which, at heart, is all of us.
When, in the throes of an outraged frenzy he shouts "stand-ins of the world units!" he is still able a moment later to drop down many decibels for a quiet, "Sometimes I dream of Higgs."
The other players do well in their roles, although only Lewis Goldman as the vulgar Birdboot and Fatima Mahdi as the terrifically sinister Mrs. Drudge ("The fog is very treacherous around here--it rolls off the sea without warning, shrouding the cliffs in a deadly mantle of blind man's bluff...") manage to match Edelstein's spirit.
For a curtain raiser (The Real Inspector Hound is quite short), the troupe performs Stoppard's equally delightful Dogg's Hamlet. This manic digest of all the famous lines from Hamlet sets the tone well for a lively, if light-weight evening. What with the Hamlet sword play and Inspector Hound's bang-em-up ending, we get a whole lot of corpses for our money.