CONTROLLED CHAOS: A convincingly young cast and an intimate production make this Spelling Bee touching as well as hilarious.
Having begun life as a non-musical improvisatory exercise with the unpromising title C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, Spelling Bee was developed at Barrington Stage Company in 2004 before going on to Off Broadway and unlikely Broadway success. And it still uses the surprisingly well-integrated device of including a quartet of spellers culled from the audience — they're given made-up-on-the-spot introductions by the presiding "adults," gamely if rudimentarily incorporated into the choreography, and eliminated from the competition on cue, even when it isn't easy. (At the Lyric press performance, one game ringer had to be given a second impossible word before he fell.) But at the core of the show is its sextet of variously nerdy elementary- and middle-school spellers, their sweaty-palmed turns at the microphone interspersed with surreal or pandemonic fantasies that limn their private distresses, from defending champ Chip Tolentino's ill-timed boner to sad Olive Ostrovsky's yearning for parental presence and support.
At the Lyric, under Terrell's direction, the chaos is well controlled, if as brimming as hormones, and the winsomeness beneath the geekiness is palpable. Terrell's choreography is more tongue-in-cheek frantic than accomplished, though veteran of the Broadway staging Lisa Yuen, lunging up to her lace panties into a split, proves supple enough as ultimately liberated overachiever Marcy Park. Jonathan Goldberg's adept off-stage musicians supply a jumpy undercurrent for Finn's now bouncy, now plangent tunes. And the newbie cast is terrific, with especial kudos to Lexie Fennell Frare as pint-sized gay activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, whose impossible surname is an amalgam of her pressuring dads', and Krista Buccellato as a transparently fragile Olive, who shyly points out that her name, with the first two vowels transposed, spells "I love." This production gets that part, as well as the funny ones, right.
The Publick Theatre reaches deep into the well of Tom Stoppard's juvenilia to turn up The Real Inspector Hound, which was written in the early 1960s, when the British wordsmith wasn't much older than the phonemical wanna-bes of Spelling Bee but a whole lot more brilliant. First produced in 1968, this slight, sleight-of-hand one-act (at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza through September 25) combines parody, meta-theatrics, and the Absurd to squeeze such overripe fruit as Agatha Christie and drama critics. The piece is oftener performed as half of a double bill, but director Diego Arciniegas inserts an intermission and allows the inanity of both the hack scribblers and the closed-door murder mystery their delicious leisure. The slo-mo approach proves particularly — and audaciously — apt when an arch tea scene is stretched like starchy taffy. (Arciniegas also inserts a cell phone, which seems silly in so obviously a mid-20th-century period piece and mutes the gag that gets the drama critics involved in the whodunit.)
Seething second-stringer Moon and philandering influence peddler Birdboot are the critics, tucked, notebooks in hand, into a corner row of the BCA Plaza, the former spinning existential analysis that makes the ridiculously formulaic on-stage doings sound like Albert Camus's The Stranger, the latter ogling the actresses. Mrs. Drudge, the hair-netted charlady, sets the tone of the play within the play, answering the old-fashioned on-stage telephone, "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring." And, of course, no one notices the body on stage until the ringer Inspector Hound shows up, trenchcoated and teetering on "swamp boots" that look like hot-water bottles.