Big Dawg Productions is following up their successful run of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” with Tom Stoppard’s parody play, “The Real Inspector Hound.”
Stoppard originally wrote the play around 1962, at the time he was working on “Enter a Free Man” and winding up a career as a drama critic for the “Bristol Evening World.” So he begins with writing about what he knows: two theatre critics, Moon (Mike O’Neil) and Birdboot (Steve Vernon), meet in the audience at a show they are both reviewing. Moon also is the name of the Boswell character to Lord Malquist in “Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon,” Stoppard’s only published novel. Moon is the second string sent out when his superior officer, Higgs, is unavailable for the evening. Clearly, this is a sore point. With very little prodding or provocation, Moon launches into a rousing speech on behalf of understudies everywhere: in the arts, politics and offices—all waiting for the day they rise up and take their rightful places at the helm.
O’Neil is so convincing in his role that my date broke into a round of applause, shared by the rest of the audience, at the end of the monologue. That should give readers an idea of the evening: O’Neil delivering a monologue (while seated), filled with erudite references and philosophical wanderings on an absurd theme, he sells the script. The whole cast follows suit in having a great time with purely ridiculous material and underplaying it to get the bigger laugh. One has to imagine director Lee Lowrimore just built in an extra half-hour to rehearsals to enjoy the general silliness of it all.
Vernon’s Birdboot is so seasoned as a critic, to say he has the trick in the bag is an understatement. Hardened, no longer amazed or amused as much by what is onstage as by his own sense of importance and small bit of power in the theatre world, he finds greater pleasure in affairs with young actresses (a form of command rape, forcing his perceived influence upon them) than in the shows themselves. As a bored, aging, angry man with little respect form anyone, Vernon’s Birdboot is pitch-perfect. If it weren’t for his top-notch comedic talent, audiences would rather strangle his character instead of root for him.
Finally, Birdboot and Moon (somewhat) direct their attention to the play they are supposed to be watching—a “whodunit?” at Muldoon Manor. Enter: Mrs. Drudge (Eleanor Zeddies), a cockney day woman who is trying to get through her duties, though the fog is rolling in and will soon cut off routes to the house except via the swamps—making it completely inaccessible from the outside world. This information and almost all of the other expository material is delivered by Mrs. Drudge in a series of non-sequiturs as she answers the telephone in the drawing room. Her lines are absurd and watching Zeddies try to get through them with her ridiculous accent—and not break into giggles—is guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face. She is so close to breaking, and that joyous tension is delivered to the audience with much more grace than the tea she attempts to serve the people of the manor.
But Moon and Birdboot are not interested in her—despite the fact she delivers plot and backstory. Felicity (Rachael Moser), who is visiting the Muldoon Manor, and Cynthia Muldoon (Rachel Lewis-Hilburn) are far more interesting than the help. And who could blame the critics? Moser and Lewis-Hilburn are beautiful—stunning, even. Moser sinks further and further into the land of the angry, jilted, former lover who is being thrown over for her richer friend. She radiates disdain. Meanwhile Lewis-Hilburn does a convincing job of smoothing the rough edges of all her guests, which, besides Felicity, include her brother-in-law, Magnus (Jim Bowling), and Simon (Derek West), the object of Felicity and Cynthia’s affection.
Lewis-Hilburn has played a lot of serious roles in the last few years, and it is really great to see her take a turn with the ridiculous and let her playful comedic side out. How she holds it together in such close proximity to Bowling’s malicious, ridiculous antics is really a testament to her recreation of the finishing-school “perfect lady.”
Bowling comes pretty close to upstaging everyone … until Jamey Stone enters as The Real Inspector Hound, wearing his patented “swamp boots,” which provide a moment of visual comedy so perfect it belies description. (Just go see the boots.) Stone is an accomplished stand-up comic and actor; he comes at everything with great verve. There are few performers who could recover from an entrance so wonderful, but he does and brings the audience with him in escalating absurdity.
“The Real Inspector Hound” is a parody of the classic murder mystery tale. It is appropriate that Big Dawg is producing it back to back with “The Mousetrap,” and on the same set designed by Dallas LaFon and built by Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum. It is a really lovely artistic choice that visually parallels the two shows, and ups the ante on the ludicrous twists and turns the cast must navigate.
It is really hard to play farce well. Comedy is tough, but this cast is having so much fun they make it look effortless. By the time the weekend rolls around, a lot of us (myself included) need a vacation from responsibility; nothing works faster than a night of good laughs. “The Real Inspector Hound” delivers on all fronts—and swamp boots.
The Real Inspector Hound
Thurs.-Sat., May 5-8 and 12-15, 8 p.m. and 3 p.m. matinee on Sun.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
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