Metro Stage's production ‘Hound' has bark, bite

 

Actors capture tone, feel of Stoppard's classic

 

By David Hoffman

Friday, May 13, 2011

 

Tom Stoppard is the consummate dramatist of concepts more than characters.

 

Born Tomas Straussler in 1937 in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Stoppard's family was Jewish and to avoid persecution in 1939 they fled Europe.

 

Stoppard later took his English stepfather's surname after his own father was captured and killed by the Japanese, who had invaded Singapore in 1941 during World War II.

 

Stoppard rightly has been considered one of the world's greatest English-speaking playwrights since his early triumph with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," which catapulted him to the forefront of modern dramatists when it opened in London in 1967.

 

His plays often have been described primarily as a theater of ideas, often featuring real-life personalities, such as the English poet and scholar A.E. Housman in 1997's "The Invention of Love."

 

In "Travesties" (1974), it was novelist James Joyce, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the avant-garde Romanian-French symbolist poet, meeting in a Zurich library in 1917. Stoppard's plays are best known for their intricate wordplay and recondite jokes and double innuendos.

 

A perfect example is fully represented in one of his earliest plays, "The Real Inspector Hound," at Metro Stage in Old Town Alexandria through May 29. Written between 1961 and 1962, it's a one-act farce that spoofs the cozy crime-fiction conventions of Agatha Christie, especially her famous long-running whodunit, "The Mousetrap." But it also takes jabs at the iconic figure of the ingenious super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes, made famous in the short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

"In general terms," Stoppard has said of himself, "I'm not a playwright who is interested in character ... and psychology," but rather "I'm a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters who express these ideas."

 

This cool, meta-attitude, with calculated intellectual bravura, often uses the device of the play-within-a-play, illustrated perfectly by this comedy tour-de-force, which is a true tongue-in-cheek parody.

 

Stoppard in fact laughs out loud especially at all those time-worn Christie conventions -- a mysterious stranger, a murderer on the loose, bodies piling up in a remote manor house, the suspicion that one of the weekend guests "must" be the murderer, and the entry of the savvy detective to put everything right, thereby restoring the moral order.

 

Set in "secluded" Muldoon manor, surrounded by "desolate marshes," in fact it is said in a droll aside there are "no roads leading from the manor, though there are ways of getting to it, weather permitting."

 

Stoppard's play was written when he mostly was unemployed and before his huge hits began to pile up after the tragicomedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." The absurdist retelling of "Hamlet" from the perspective of its clueless minor characters won four Tony Awards including Best Play in 1968. And Stoppard's screenplays won plaudits, including for Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (1985) and an Academy Award for screenwriting for "Shakespeare in Love" (1998).

 

Skillfully helmed by veteran director John Vreeke, "The Real Inspector Hound" glitters with bright wit as Stoppard dissects without mercy the traditional tropes so familiar to fans of police procedurals and classic English murder mysteries. The play is such unmitigated fun that you are almost certain to sit tingling on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next unexpected twist and unforeseen turn.

 

Metro Stage has done us all a huge favor by bringing together three of the stars of an earlier play, "Heroes," staged there several years, where they won that year's Helen Hayes Award for outstanding ensemble in a resident production. Vreeke, himself a four-time best director Helen Hayes Awards nominee, directed that play also, which in fact Stoppard had translated from the original French.

 

In this play, nothing that is apparent is real. Even the fourth wall of the stage, absent as the play opens, entirely dissolves halfway through when all boundaries between actors and audience are broken into pieces.

 

But first we meet two theatre critics sitting in other seats but facing us. There's Moon (Ralph Cosham) and Birdboot (Michael Tolaydo), the former afflicted with a huge inferiority complex as the second-string reviewer from his paper, and the latter a philanderer cheating on his wife with every ingenue he can bed after he gives her a swooning review.

 

There's another actor already on stage, but he is quite dead. The corpse, who naturally never moves, is partly covered beneath a settee and is somehow ignored by the other actors in the play, the one that the two critics have come to review. Never paying him a moment's attention, they simply walk around him.

 

This is a real cast of "characters," including the third member of the "Heroes" trio, John Dow, as the mysterious Major Magnus Muldoon -- crippled half-brother of the glamorous vixen, Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Emily Townley), who oozes a come-hither sensuality. Others in the cast stand out, including a hilarious impression of the household maid, Mrs. Drudge, delivered with Cockney accent and formidable tolerance for her so-called "betters" and with true wit by a true Brit (Catherine Flye).

 

Then there's Cynthia's beautiful young friend, Felicity (Kimberly Gilbert), who hardly lives up to her name. She is seemingly sweet but suggestive of murderous malice. There's also the mysterious stranger, handsome Simon Gascoyne (Doug Krehbel), who has had affairs with both Cynthia and Felicity.

 

He takes an immediate dislike to Magnus, who also nurses a strong desire for his late half-brother's widow.

 

Motives for murder pile up, and before long there are more than just one corpse on stage. Meanwhile, Moon and Birdboot have gotten -- literally, and fatally -- into the act. In the process, the roles of theatre critics are thoroughly skewered. Writing reviews is how Stoppard, who never went to university, got his start before crossing over to writing plays instead of reviewing them.

 

At the end, the big surprise reveals the real murderer and who is the "real" Inspector Hound.

 

The title in fact is a direct reference to the ending of Christie's classic long-running whodunnit "The Mousetrap," a play also well-known for guarding the secrecy of its own twist finale.

 

Suffice it to say here that all the loose ends -- and there are many -- are neatly tied up with elegance, and you will almost certainly never see them all coming.