Felicity Cunningham (Anna Waldron) broods in the play-within-the-play that drives “The Real Inspector Hound.”
“A seamless gem of a play! Featuring performances which could be considered the summit of contemporary theater! ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ presents the audience with no less than the human condition itself!”
Or so might declare the effusive and inane theater critics at the center of Tom Stoppard’s satirical take on murder mysteries, playing through September 25 in a solid—though certainly not flawless—production by the Publick Theatre Boston at the Boston Center for the Arts.
The play’s the thing in this production, which wisely focuses on the complex and clever text and its many layers of reality. Director Diego Arciniegas underscores these various realities, in particular the audience’s experience of the play, right from the beginning—or perhaps more appropriately, beginnings—of the show. After the lights dim and eerie music pipes in—traditional indicators in this curtain-less era that the show is about to start—the effects suddenly come to a screeching halt as the house lights are turned up and several audience members skulk into the theater. The sequence repeats, and two people in the audience begin speaking.
They are critics Birdboot (William Gardiner) and Moon (Barlow Adamson), at the theater to review a murder mystery play. As they continue to converse, focusing more on their own affairs than the play they are attending, it becomes clear that the show has begun—or did it actually start when the lights went down the first time? Or when the usher showed you to your seat?
Such are the types of meta-theatrical questions “Hound” poses, which are then further complicated when Birdboot and Moon become directly involved in the action of the play they are supposed to be watching. This play—a whodunit set at a manor ripped straight from any of Agatha Christie’s works—is riddled with clichés and convenient coincidences that poke fun at the murder mystery genre’s conventions, while also demonstrating their narrative effectiveness. The play-within-the-play’s plot is largely unimportant, but it involves a web of love affairs and murders in which the manor guests find themselves entangled. Birdboot and Moon merge seamlessly into the show, and expected turmoil and a twist ending ensue.
Arciniegas’ direction throws the would-be certainties of this entire production into question: Are those late audience members who walked into the theater long after the many false endings also actors? Is Magnus Muldoon’s fake-looking beard the result of low production values or purposeful disguise? (Answers: No, and the latter). In this way, the production does justice to Stoppard’s play and the ideas behind it.
Yet, by introducing frequently languid pacing and an intermission, the play loses some of its excitement and charm. Stoppard often meditates on the big philosophical questions with a wink and a nudge, but with this production of “Hound,” the rumination comes as more of a half-hearted, slow poke. Part of the play’s fun is the rapid build-up of clichés, jokes, and twists that come to a quick and exhilarating head by show’s end. When this “Hound” finally tries to hit breakneck speed, it unfortunately stumbles.
Despite this pacing issue, the rest of the show’s elements are in place for an enjoyable production. Adamson and Gardiner have a nicely honed repartee and also take on their later, more dramatic roles quite convincingly. Sheriden Thomas as Mrs. Drudge, the manor’s maid, nearly steals the show with her well-timed comedic remarks. The manor ensemble members work well together to supply the murder mystery’s conventions—especially in recreating their earlier scenes once the critics join their play—even if Stoppard’s wit occasionally fails to register from their delivery.
Although the overstated praise Birdboot and Moon might direct at “The Real Inspector Hound” would be excessive, this production is certainly a sharp interpretation and a worthwhile experience—especially in light of the current vogue of interactive theater in the Boston area. While perhaps not as flashy as other attempts to directly engage the audience, “Hound” blurs the boundaries in a way that is both smart and fluid. Birdboot and Moon would undoubtedly agree.
—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.