Review: The Real Inspector Hound by The Stage, Austin
by Brian Paul Scipione
Who is the real Inspector Hound? For that matter who is Tom Stoppard? Or more to the point, does Tom Stoppard hate critics? Furthermore, what does it mean to be a critic criticizing a play that criticizes critics? And what, really, is a red herring?
If Stoppard’s writing style is an absurd reflection of the absurd qualities of life, doesn’t that naturally make him a naturalistic writer?
Finally, if a red herring is a misleading logical, fallacy that is neither red nor a herring, why do you encounter them only through reading or hearing? If you have an answer to any of these inquiries, it still may not be easy for you to nose out the real Inspector Hound, but you are certain to have an enjoyable time at The Stage’s current production in Austin.
Stoppard is perhaps best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or his work on the screenplays for Brazil, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Shakespeare in Love. His writing mastery has earned him an Academy Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, five Tony Awards, and a knighthood. Stoppard began writing plays over seventy years ago and currently has a new play, Leopoldstadt, on Broadway. So, it is probably safe to assume he is none too bothered by critics as The Real Inspector Hound might lead one to believe. In fact, he'd worked as a theatre critic before creating this 1962 play, which was a designed to be a send-up of parlor-style mystery plays like Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. And just as the plot twists of The Mousetrap are famously guarded, it would not do to reveal too much about Stoppard’s parody.
The Real Inspector Hound plays upon the concept of a play within play, questioning the free will of its characters. The dialogues of the critics are self-effacing and hilarious but not quite offensive (remember, Stoppard himself was a theatre critic). He seems to be postulating that critics are driven to grandiose turns of phrase when asked to review a parade of productions with patently homogeneous plots. It is not the critics in general he is criticizing but rather the characters of the two critics in the play. Moon and Birdboot are distinct personalities, one a self-important, lascivious, narcissist who believes he can make and break careers and the other a sniveling sycophant who will do anything to advance his career.
Jeff Hinkle’s direction of this production is spot on and very well paced. He gives all the actors plenty of room not only to embody their characters but also to embellish them. You see fully developed personalities that could result only from a jovial rehearsal process. This cast's cohesiveness belies the play’s quick pace as the story is revealed in a steady and simultaneously spontaneous fashion. The production escapes the stiff-spined pantomime-like qualities of much traditional English theater, while still feeling very British. Scot Friedman and Rick Felkins are well paired as theater critics Moon and Birdboot. They manage to interact with one another only minimally, so teach character can address whom they consider the most important person in the room: himself. Later, when they leave their critical perches, the audience gets to really see them spread their comedic wings as they play-act as actors in the play within the play. Friedman brings Moon’s awkwardness to the forefront just as Felkin’s Birdboot insufferablity takes center stage (all puns intended; after all, this is a review of a Stoppard play).
The characters of the play within the play have even more fun chomping into their character’s stereotypes. Clay Avery as Inspector Hound is a smidge of Keystone Kop and a whole lot of Fawlty Towers. During his brief time onstage he sniffs out more laughs than clues. Maddie Scanlan as Felicity uses her character’s wild mood swings to establish the rhythm of the play: frantic, accusing, coy, and charming in turns, she seamlessly delivers a fireworks display of emotions. Her competition and counterpoint is Cynthia, portrayed by Alexandria Russo—clearer in her motivations but no less explosive in her performance. Russo's command of slapstick is both infectious and charming. Darren Scharf as the wheel-chair bound Magnus literally roars onto the stage and continues to roar. His raspy accent and over-the-top performance leaves the audience roaring with laughter in response.
Hamlet declared, “The play’s the thing,” but in The Stage’s production of The Real Inspector Hound, we are duly reminded that in fact the actors are the thing that makes the play. This ensemble works so well together that one can only hope that they are soon reunited. . . and that The Stage theater company in Austincontinues to thrive.
July 14 - July 29, 2023
1110 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX, 78704
July 14 - 29, 2023
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Dougherty Arts Center, Austin
Tickets $25 - $35 plus fees, available online HERE