The Real Inspector Hound By Tom Stoppard Directed by John Vreeke; At MetroStage to May 29 In which two critics get what's coming to them

All the Stage’s a Stage: Critics direct a second-rate whodunit in Inspector Hound.

What’s funnier than a murder mystery that goes hilariously off the rails? A murder mystery that goes hilariously off the rails and takes a couple of theater critics with it. That’s the premise, anyway, of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, in which a second-string scribe and his skirt-chasing colleague settle down to review a second-rate whodunit—only to find themselves drawn into the action of a play where some exits will prove surprisingly final.

The work at hand is a hackneyed country-house thriller, which doesn’t stop the wearied, hangdog Moon (Ralph Cosham) and his pompous schmoozer of a fellow columnist (Michael Tolaydo’s Birdboot) from offering, as if by rote, the kind of close reading you’d bring to Chekhov or Ibsen. They try their rough-draft lines on one another, but without real conviction; drab Moon laments the soul-killing lot of the writer who fills in when the chief critic has better things to do; fickle Birdboot, his hair dyed the pungent persimmon of a man whose midlife crisis has long passed its sell-by date, steers Moon unsubtly toward praise for the ingénue—with whom he’s had the odd cocktail-lounge encounter, but strictly for research, of course—and then toward the leading lady, whose substantial charms he has only now recognized. (They do seem to have been lifted and separated especially for the occasion.)

As the desultory onstage love triangle plays out in a fog-bound manor, where no one knows each other quite as well as you’d expect and where at least one fellow is clearly someone other than who he seems, the critical thrust-and-parry gets increasingly entangled with scenes we realize seem oddly familiar. And is that Birdboot, suddenly making an entrance where the mysterious stranger earlier had a cue? Shots ring out, characters fall like dominos, and laughs come louder each time the thot plickens—at least theoretically, though on opening night John Vreeke’s admirable cast seemed to be flailing a bit. An overly knowing sound and light design, with big spotlit takes accented by mock-portentous string cadences that go on a bit long, may be part of the problem; a press-night audience that didn’t quite seem to know when it was OK to laugh might have been another.

It is a crack cast, though; Kimberly Gilbert and Catherine Flye are among the other D.C.-based favorites, with four (count them, four!) stout men and true rotating in the non-speaking part of the corpse who lies unseen on the drawing-room carpet for much of the show. And because timing’s everything with a comedy like Inspector Hound, the folks at MetroStage may well have fixed the problem in the time it’s taken me to tell you about it.

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