‘Inspector Hound’ blurs fantasy with reality

“The ocean will fall into the sky, and the trees will hang with fishes,” says Moon, one of the two theater critics in Tom Stoppard’s one-act play, The Real Inspector Hound. Performed on Friday and Saturday evening at the ’62 Center, The Real Inspector Hound begins as a joyously absurd charade but slowly unveils wise and sometimes sinister truths as the plot unravels. A brace of critics attend a newly opened whodunit; although their incessant banter betrays their lack of interest in the unfolding mystery, both in turn are embroiled in the drama on stage as reality and fabrication comingle. Each critic gets lost in the fantasy where he can fulfill his innermost desires, until the consequences of this made-up world become terrifyingly real.

The ’62 Center welcomed two familiar performers to its CenterStage, Michael Winther ’85 and Kevin O’Rourke ’78. Winther, a seasoned performer both on and off Broadway, played Moon: a bitter, mediocre “second-string” theatre critic. O’Rourke, who also directed, was the driving force behind the Summer Theatre Lab, which incubated this captivating performance. He incarnates Birdboot, a similarly mediocre critic, who maintains the feeble front of a dedicated family man while none-too-secretly fancying himself as a dashing Casanova.

Before the play they are attending begins, Moon and Birdboot chat and bicker, poking at each other’s insecurities and the show at hand. Moon’s comments show how downtrodden he feels; he even professes his desire to kill his superior. On the other hand, Birdboot is concerned solely with his latest flame, one of the actresses. His opinion of the play is already made up. As one set of Stoppard’s many paired characters, and in the same vein as the ludicrous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Moon and Birdboot never cease to ridicule themselves, each rivaling the other in mediocrity and pompous pretention. O’Rourke and Winther gave a brilliant rendition of this central duo. Their hilarious exchanges were brimming with energy and very convincing antagonism, a pleasure to watch.

With the presence of two such veterans of the stage, I was worried that their star power would steal the limelight from the student actors. The fears turned out to be baseless. Rather fittingly, all of the actors in the play-within-the-play were students, and they gave a flawless performance. They represented the stereotyped, hyper-exaggerated and well-known types present in the genre of the mystery novel: blatant parodies of any Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle novella you may have read.

They are all here: the mysterious, suspicious beau, Simon Gascoyne (John Hawthorne ’13); the alluring, spurned femme fatale, Felicity Cunningham (Meghan Breen ’12) and her rival, the beautiful, unavailable Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Tyisha Turner ’12). We also have the creepy, crippled and slightly mad Major Magnus Muldoon (Jonathan Draxton ’12); the inevitably eccentric, bumbling and really quite absurd Inspector Hound (Owen Barnett-Mulligan ’13) as well as the nosy, simple and ever-present housemaid, Mrs. Drudge (Amanda Keating ’12). Jimmy Grzelak ’13 and Sarah Freymiller ’13 also played as two very visible backstage actors, who contributed in plain sight to the action and humor of the play.

All of these (comparatively) less experienced talents effortlessly embodied their larger-than-life archetypes, lending them a purposefully rigid, side-splittingly funny personality. They were predictable and familiar: The plot and the mystery were hardly important, as the audience already knew exactly what to expect from this very witty and funny parody.

Nonetheless, the play does take a turn towards the serious when Birdboot steps onto the stage and gets swallowed up in the story that repeats its earlier scenes almost verbatim. Moon shortly follows. The “actors” do not distinguish the critics from their fellow performers, and play out the drama again. Birdboot becomes the womanizer as the identity of Simon Gascoyne is thrust upon him. The same happens to Moon: When his colleague is shot, he steps onto the stage, only to become the leading man, Inspector Hound himself. They both delight in their newfound roles but are troubled when the two “actors” whose roles they have usurped take their place as critics “off stage,” echoing their flowery, conceited dialogue of platitudes right back at them. Both critics meet their end as the story gives its final twist, but the tragedy of their death is offset by the humor of the “play” that goes on, wrapping up the mystery.

During one of the earlier stages of the play, Moon attempts to back up his insipid critique by referencing the names of certain authors among which, in a purposeful wink by Stoppard, is Samuel Beckett. In a powerful way, The Real Inspector Hound places itself firmly in the lineage of Beckett’s famed Waiting for Godot. Birdboot and Moon remind us of Vladimir and Estragon: The two non-beings show how hopeless they are before their fate, even as everything repeats itself before their very eyes.

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