Playfully biting critics in Publick’s ‘Hound’
When Tom Stoppard was in his 20s, he toiled for a time as a theater critic. But he must have quickly realized what a sucker’s game that was, because it wasn’t long before he turned to playwriting.
Good career move. Nearly half a century later, after constructing an oeuvre that includes “The Coast of Utopia,’’ “Travesties,’’ “Jumpers,’’ “The Real Thing,’’ “Rock ’n’ Roll,’’ “Arcadia,’’ and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’’ Stoppard’s standing as the finest English-language playwright alive seems unassailable, at least to yours truly.
But Stoppard’s brief stint as a reviewer paid off in at least one respect. In 1968, drawing from his recent past (and from his own fertile imagination) he wrote “The Real Inspector Hound,’’ featuring two fatuous drama critics, Birdboot and Moon, who move from their seats in the audience to, quite literally, center stage.
On its face, “Hound’’ is a satire of British drawing-room murder mysteries wrapped within a lampoon of pretentious reviewers. But — at the risk of sounding like one of those critics — with Stoppard things are never that simple.
The easy laughs of “Hound’’ give way to a prickling sense of dread after the proverbial fourth wall collapses, big time, and Moon and Birdboot find themselves in a metaphysical hall of mirrors, and they . . . well, let’s just say their fate is one to gladden the heart of many a director and actor.
A new production of “Hound’’ by the Publick Theatre Boston, directed by Diego Arciniegas, is most compelling during those later moments of existential dislocation (there’s that pretentiousness again!). When it comes to the humor of “Hound,’’ some members of the cast haven’t yet found a rhythm that will enable them to fully mine Stoppard’s golden wit. They don’t quite make the verbal sparks fly as often or as fast as they should.
There are some sterling exceptions, though, especially Barlow Adamson as Moon, who launches into arias of bitterness at being his newspaper’s No. 2 critic and daydreams of supplanting the No. 1; William Gardiner as Birdboot, a critic for another newspaper whose ambitions run in a more lascivious direction, as his eye falls first on one actress in the murder mystery they are reviewing, and then another; and Gabriel Kuttner as the mysterious Magnus, confined to a wheelchair and wearing a transparently false beard. (The cast also deserves credit for maintaining stiff upper lips while several flies persistently buzzed about the stage during the performance I attended.)
The young Stoppard took obvious relish in parodying the linguistic and atmospheric conventions of the stage whodunit, right down to the brooding housekeeper played by Sheriden Thomas. The housekeeper bears the Dickensian name Mrs. Drudge, and she answers the phone with helpful bits of exposition like: “Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring.’’
On this morning in early spring a “dangerous madman on the loose’’ is ostensibly menacing the inhabitants of remote Muldoon Manor, who include Cynthia Muldoon (Georgia Lyman), a young fellow named Simon Gascoyne (Danny Bryck), a tennis-playing lass named Felicity Cunningham (Anna Waldron), the aforementioned Magnus, and a corpse on the floor that no one seems to notice.
Seductions, betrayals, and death threats abound in “Hound.’’ But most of the fun in this production lies in listening to Stoppard’s merciless sendup of his former profession via the bloviations of Moon and Birdboot, who are seated in the audience (until, fatefully, they are not).
While watching the murder mystery unfold onstage, Moon lapses into review-speak, sagely observing that the play “has élan while at the same time avoiding éclat,’’ furrowing his brow to ask “Does this play know where it’s going?’’ and then, finally, concluding with a grand critical flourish: “There are moments, and I would not begrudge it this, when the play, if we can call it that, and I think on balance we can, aligns itself uncompromisingly on the side of life. Je suis, it seems to be saying, ergo sum.’’
Mr. Moon, I tip my hat to you.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.