Review: The Stage Austin's The Real Inspector Hound

The director, not the dead guy, is the victim in Tom Stoppard’s critique of critics


(l-r) Rick Felkins as Birdboot, Scot Friedman as Moon, and Mattie Scanlan as Felicity in the Stage Austin's The Real Inspector Hound (Photo by Tony Zavaleta)

Every playwright who has received a negative review – which, let's face it, is every playwright – has no doubt laid awake at night formulating passive-aggressive revenge on the reviewer.

A few have actually carried it off in impressive fashion. A theatre critic is stabbed to death in the opening act of Ken Ludwig's comedy The Game's Afoot. In Conor McPherson's St Nicholas (recently revived at the Hyde Park Theatre), a theatre critic is kept alive only to serve as a food forager for a coven of vampires. Samuel Beckett makes the profession the most grievous insult among the many exchanged between the two main characters in his avant-garde play Waiting for Godot: "Curate!" "Cretin!" "Critic!"

Whatever panning multi-Tony Award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard received came early in his long career of being justifiably described by critics as too academic, too verbose, and, according to The New York Times, "too clever by half." Said The Guardian in 1993 of Arcadia: "There is no one like Stoppard for making you feel both spoilt and inadequate as an audience."

His revenge is The Real Inspector Hound. First staged in 1968, the one-act play presents and parodies a whodunit murder mystery but with an absurdist, meta-theatrical twist that throws under the bus the two self-obsessed, parasitic theatre critics in attendance. It is being given a fun but somewhat problematic production by the Stage Austin.

Moon (a terrific Scot Friedman, channeling fictional sports journalist Trent Crimm from Ted Lasso) is an ambitious backup critic with an inferiority complex. He is attending the evening's production of The Real Inspector Hound because the first stringer – a man Moon wishes was dead so he could advance up the byline food chain – has disappeared. To prove his worth to himself and rival veteran critic Birdboot, Moon's running narration while watching the play overanalyzes the production. When the show starts late, Moon suggests that the play is "opening with a pause." He compares the script to the works of Kafka, Shakespeare, Beckett, and others, and finds intense meaning in a story where none exists.

Birdboot (a delightfully fumfering Rick Felkins) is a critic for the sole purpose of getting laid by whatever young actress he has given a rave review.

Late in the play, when a prop telephone rings at Muldoon Manor and no actor is onstage to answer it, an annoyed Moon does and hands it off to Birdboot because it's his wife is on the line, accusing him of sleeping with the actor playing Felicity (Maddie Scanlan, nicely overperforming all the tropes of the ingenue). While Birdboot is onstage, actors playing Muldoon Manor denizens (including Alexandra Russo as the alluring Lady Cynthia Muldoon, Darren Scharf as the grumpy Magnus Muldoon – both owners of the best physical comedy in the play – and the wonderful Bobbie Oliver as the exposition-spouting housekeeper) enter and treat him as if he was the dashing and dangerous murder mystery character Simon Gascoyne.

Later, Moon comes onstage and the actors treat him as if he were Inspector Hound, who has been assigned to solve the murder. While all this takes place, the actors playing Simon (brilliantly overplayed by Jacob Bernelle) and Inspector Hound (a miscast, misguided Clay Avery) take Moon and Birdboot's seats and assume the role of critic.

Too clever by half? You bet.

Critics are not the only ones thrown under the bus by Stoppard. So is every director staging this play, due to the near-insurmountable logistics of seating the critics where they can be seen offstage as they are watching and commenting on the production of The Real Inspector Hound. The Stage Austin's Jeff Hinkle has chosen poorly in this regard, for he places the critics squarely and artificially behind the performance and is indecisive and inconsistent in how best to light them when they are speaking as the play is being performed. He is also indecisive about what to do with the actors performing the play within the play when Stoppard provides them with no dialogue or action during the critics' often long exchanges. Slow pacing is another problem with this production.

While Veronica Dobell Prior's costume design is spot on, MacKenzie Mulligan's lighting design and Jeff Miller's sound design do little to make the parody of The Real Inspector Hound and its often-ominous moments more melodramatic. Missed lighting and sound cues don't help.

Not missed are the many comedic moments in this play within a play and an opportunity to stage a clever curtain call that ends the evening in true Stoppard fashion.


The Stage Austin's The Real Inspector Hound

Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
thestageaustin.com
Through July 29
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Real Inspector Hound, The Stage Austin, Tom Stoppard, Scot Friedman, Rick Felkins, Maddie Scanlan, Alexandra Russo, Darren Scharf, Bobbie Oliver, Jacob Bernelle, Clay Avery, Jeff Hinkle, Veronica Dobell Prior, MacKenzie Mulligan, Jeff Miller

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