Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2003
I wanted to like this production. I really did. I want to see Main Street Stage succeed and Tom Stoppard is one of my favorite playwrights and what’s not to like about a show that ends with three (count ‘em, three!) theatre critics dead on the stage? So why didn’t I laugh and have myself a whale of a time?
Stoppard’s popular 1968 play deals (rather harshly) with professional theatre critics within the context of a spoof of a classic British murder mystery. Two critics Moon (second string for Higgs) and Birdboot are attending a performance of an unnamed murder mystery in their professional capacity. Neither of them seems to be very interested in what is actually happening on stage. Moon is preoccupied with his second string standing and Birdboot is after the two actresses on stage. Periodically they banter about what they will write, using words such as élan and éclat, and pontificate about their power to make or break a career.
Eventually the reality off stage and the reality on stage blur. Moon and Birdboot become entangled with the play and the players, and both wind-up dead, along with a corpse that has laid on stage the entire evening, who Birdboot claims is Moon’s rival, Higgs.
The Real Inspector Hound is a play that breaks the fourth wall, and one reason I think this production fails is that you are never really convinced that there was a fourth wall to start with. I sat in the second row, but there aren’t that many rows to start with in there. The entire audience is pretty darned close to the stage. And so are Moon and Birdboot. Too close, in fact, being seated immediately next to the small rise that divides the stage floor from the theatre floor. I was not at all surprised when one of them stood up, raised a foot, and stepped on to the stage proper. And I should have been.
The other problem with this production is that the actors are having entirely too much fun, which is an odd thing to complain about. When I interviewed them for the preview article they all told me how well they got along, how much fun rehearsals had been and how much they enjoyed the play. All of that is great, and it usually leads to a performance that is lively. The actors’ rapport usually invites the audience in to their created reality. But in this case I felt like everyone on stage belonged to a club that I couldn’t join and were laughing at jokes I didn’t get. Not that I didn’t get the jokes in the script, but there seemed to be an unscripted undercurrent of humor that was neither welcoming nor entertaining.
Perhaps satire doesn’t play well at such close quarters. Perhaps that fourth wall needs to be there. Stoppard is making fun of hoary stage conventions, and director Alexia Trova has her cast perform them in big, theatrical ways. And it just doesn’t play well in such a small, intimate space.
The show as a whole doesn’t work. But there are several fine performances in the piece, and having focused on the many negatives I would like to spend sometime on the positive. As the two actresses Birdboot is so enamored of, Barby Cardillo and Lisa Murray, are beautiful and entertaining.. Spencer Trova is often a pleasure to watch, and he is fun and funny here.
My favorite thing on the stage was Michael Trainor as Birdboot. I loved how he ate his chocolates. Him I could buy as a theatre critic, whereas I had more trouble accepting David Joseph as one. I am not sure why that should be the case. Joseph is an appealing and competent performer, and, as a theatre critic myself and being acquainted with many other people in this odd profession, there is no one type of person who is more likely to take up the trade than another. If only theatres didn’t give us those enormous, brightly colored press packets you would not be able to tell the critics from the average theatre goers.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad production. It is an okay production, but it had the potential to be a really good one. It has a talented cast, a dedicated director, and it is well within the technical abilities of the theatre. I really wanted to come out of this one with a rave instead of a shrug and a sigh.
The Real Inspector Hound runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. from October 23-November 15 at the Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street in North Adams. The show runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermissionand is suitable for ages 12 and up. Tickets are $12. Call (413) 663-3240 for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003