The Curio Theatre Company seems to have a passion for Tom Stoppard, the modern world's logical successor to the wit of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Two seasons ago Curio performed Stoppard's best-known work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; this month it's presenting his minor follow-up, the enjoyably slight The Real Inspector Hound.
Curio's production is good fun, if smart sendups of The Mousetrap and critical pomp are your thing. The plot is a loving satire of the classic English mystery, as mass produced by Agatha Christie, with a set of characters inhabiting the hilariously desolate Muldoon Manor, which is easy to access, but nearly impossible to escape. ("I took the short cut over the cliffs and followed one of the old smugglers' paths through the treacherous swamps that surround this strangely inaccessible home.")
The characters are all absurd caricatures, from the charming rake Simon Gascoyne (Steve Carpenter) to the ridiculously overwrought Lady Cynthia (Jennifer Summerfield), who pines over the husband she lost years ago when he took an ill-advised stroll along the aforementioned misty cliffs.
Between lust and righteousness
But the meat of the play concerns the interplay between two theater critics— the morose Moon (Liam Castellan) and the rascally Birdboot (Ryan Walter)— who are half-watching the murder mystery while discussing (respectively) their careers and their romantic prospects. Birdboot is a portly connoisseur of chocolates and actresses, oscillating wildly between wanton lust and wounded righteousness ("I'll have you know I'm a family man devoted to my homely but good-natured wife").
Midway through, the two critics are sucked into the play-within-a-play and, like their counterparts in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, prove unable to overcome the inevitable unfolding of the plot.
Director Dan Hodge's claim that the play contains "a surprising amount of danger" seems a mite overblown, as it contains none. Stoppard's script is far too airy to lend any real emotional resonance or shock to the killings that punctuate the action.
To be sure, the characters are all grotesques and stereotypes. And that's fine: The Real Inspector Hound lacks the airtight existential despair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not to mention that play's tragic (or intellectual) intentions. Inspector Hound is pure farce: Just as we don't much care when a Christie character is murdered, we don't much care when a gun goes off in this play either.
Hodge to the contrary, Inspector Hound decidedly does not "fearlessly toe the line between camp and genuine intrigue." All of The Real Inspector's toes— both feet, really—are planted firmly in the former category.
Sympathy for critics
The play's only pathos drives from Birdboot and Moon, who feel sadly outdated, sort of like buggy drivers or typewriter salesmen. The Real Inspector Hound was written in 1968, and it's based on Stoppard's own experiences as a critic back in the days when the profession was actually a profession, not the reserve of freelancers and amateurs. (You know, the sort who write for BSR.)
Birdboot's creepy claim that his good word will make an actress's career may still be plausible in New York or London (though I doubt it). But Philadelphia today (to say nothing of smaller cities) lacks even one full-time theater critic.
Moon is the embittered stand-in for Higgs, his paper's chief theater critic; Moon even has a stand-in for himself. Three positions at one paper— an embarrassment of riches! I can only imagine the suicidal— or murderous— depths to which Moon would be plunged in today's media environment.