Before he began creating some of the most original and intellectually entertaining theater in the English language, Czech-born Tom Stoppard did what he could to discourage bad theater. The Real Inspector Hound is a prime example, and the Barn Summer Playhouse at Roger Williams University is currently staging a snappy rendition (through June 28).
The one-act play is an absurdist send-up of both the traditional English parlor murder mystery, such as Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and pompous British critics who take such and themselves far too seriously (a bonus is that Stoppard was himself a British theater critic early in his career).
Written five years before his career breakout with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and staged only after that success, the play is a lighthearted exercise that the clever wordsmith could have written with one brain lobe tied behind his back. The humor is broad, stopping just short of employing slapsticks, but Stoppard beefs it up by creating a play within a play and complicates matters further by leaving ambiguous which is within which.
It opens with two critics in balcony seats above the stage. Moon (Lindsey Meyers) is the more loquacious one, with a sardonic and analytical mind she puts to trivial use. Birdboot (Mick Jones) is so full of himself that he should be as rotund as Humpty Dumpty.
The play on stage takes place in Muldoon Manor, semi-inaccessible in foul weather that impedes access through the adjacent Essex marshland. The story begins as a maid, Mrs. Drudge (Dorisa Boggs), hears on the radio a warning to look out for a lunatic recently escaped from a nearby asylum. Of course, while her back is turned, a suspicious-looking young man (Chad Morin) is skulking outside.
The characters assemble like a circus parade. The lovely young Felicity (Mandie Hittleman) is glad to see Simon Gascoyne (Morin) after their tryst the night before. But her smile quickly turns to a snarl when she learns that he has also been availing himself of the up-close-and-personal hospitality of the older lady of the house, Cynthia Muldoon (Melanie Snow).
The widow Muldoon — well, her husband Albert wandered off into the moor 10 years before and is presumed dead — makes a big point, back-of-hand-to-forehead, of being reluctant to be bedded. Loyalty to her husband’s memory, however, doesn’t prevent her from being seduced by Major Magnus (Obadiah Kelley). He’s the crippled half-brother of Albert, recently arrived from Canada. (His wheelchair clunking down the stairs, with pauses for bathroom breaks, is a cute running — uh, rolling — joke.)
The interplay is done with exaggerated bad acting, except for Mrs. Drudge, who provides sober perspective on all this nonsense. She also gets some good lines. Simon: “It’s interesting how you country people really know weather.” Mrs. Drudge: “Whether what?” She also gets to do a shock take, accompanied by swelling music, whenever anyone — eventually everyone — angrily threatens to murder someone. And did I mention that throughout most of the play there is a dead body obscured by a fainting couch — how appropriate — which nobody notices? By the time the outlandishly inept Inspector Hound (Jay Miscia) enters the scene, complete with deerstalker cap, magnifying glass, and bumbling manner, whodunit and even what exactly has been dun have receded into irrelevance.