Friday, September 10, 2010

The houndtrap

The Publick Theatre's revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound (at left) is perhaps almost too smart for its own good. And maybe not quite sharp enough for its own good.

Which isn't to say this Hound isn't friendly; it's just never frisky, despite the efforts of a large chunk of Boston's best theatrical talent. The central problem is that director Diego Arciniegas has weighted the script with a rather heavy sense of its own intellectual importance - he heightens the shadow of the Theatre of the Absurd, and draws out (while actually slightly obscuring) the script's inter-textuality, and has even updated the look of Stoppard's play-within-the-play to the inter-sexuality, if you will, of Charles Ludlam. And Arciniegas has made Stoppard's meta-play so very thoroughly meta that he has even thrown in an intermission, at which I found myself peeing next to one of the script's "critics" in the john. (I admit I felt my performance of the role at that moment had an urgency his lacked.)

But clever as he is, Arciniegas seems to have forgotten that the dramatic engine of this one-act (and despite its dilation into two acts here, Hound is most definitely a one-act) is a snarky parody of Agatha Christie - her moth-eaten classic The Mousetrap in particular, which I think is still running in London after 58 years (Stoppard even ridicules, and therefore ruins, the old Dame's big twist). Yes, yes, the script is chock-a-block with then-up-to-the-minute theatrical ideas; but Hound should scamper through them like a puppy, as it's basically a long-form skit, not a seminar.

Thus, while this may be the most self-conscious Hound I've ever seen, it was far from the funniest. You could have driven a hearse through many of its cues, and to be honest, only a few in the talented cast were at their polished best. Just in case you've never seen it, the script's hook is the slow interpolation of a pair of critics (called, in classic Stoppardese, "Birdboot" and "Moon") into a ghastly murder mystery they're supposed to be reviewing. But I was surprised to see Arciniegas going easy on my benighted profession (although I know, I know, I don't really act like a professional). In any real Boston update of Hound, of course, at least one of the print critics would have to be female (the sex talk could still work, just make her from The Edge) - but even beyond that, the roles are quite a bit more wicked fun than William Gardiner and Barlow Adamson seemed to realize (and Arciniegas didn't really differentiate his critical Didi and Gogo enough, either).

Meanwhile, up on "stage," there was fine, ghoulish work from Sheridan Thomas as the aptly-named Mrs. Drudge, who does both the literal and dramatic drudgery (a typical line: "Muldoon Manor, one morning in early spring"), and the amusingly over-poised Georgia Lyman as the deathly attractive lady of the house.  Meanwhile Gabriel Kuttner and Danny Bryck knew what they were doing, but hadn't quite given it their own spin yet, and on the sidelines some supporting roles looked even more under-rehearsed.  The effectively funereal set was by Dahlia Al-Habieli, and the atmospheric (if occasionally intrusive) lighting was by Jeff Adelberg.

But one last nitpick: at a famous hinge-point in Hound, Stoppard has one of his critics actually step onto the stage to answer a telephone that's mysteriously ringing (even though we know the line has been cut) - at which point all ontological hell breaks loose, and the critics are suddenly "embedded" in the play they've been watching.  Here, however, Arciniegas has his scribbler answer his cell at the last moment - a funny jab at local reviewers who forget to turn off their digital devices, it's true; but doesn't this subtly undermine Stoppard's intent?  I thought so; a better solution to the problem of "updating" this moment of inter-text (if it must be updated) might be to have the critic's cell ring first, and then be "taken over," as it were, by the phone onstage.  Just a thought from Mr. Moon here.

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