There's no one more qualified to examine the pretensions of theater professionals and their critics than England's greatest living playwright, Tom Stoppard, who began his illustrious career as an itinerant drama reviewer. The surreal sense of humor Stoppard displays in The Real Inspector Hound is perfect for taking the air out of folks on both sides of the footlights. And under the puckish direction of local playwright Terry Dodd (which adds another wrinkle to the playwright-as-director syndrome noted in the review above), the Aurora Fox Theatre's production of Stoppard's sendup proves to be an enjoyable evening of tongue-in-cheek commentary.
Appropriately enough, the play begins with the entrance of Moon (Annie Butler), a third-string theater critic for a daily newspaper. She bustles her way down the aisle of the Fox's auditorium and, after unpacking various and sundry necessities (including a small cooler and water bottle), settles into her special box seat. After a few minutes, Moon's tardy journalistic colleague, Birdboot (Ian Gibbs), arrives, delaying the start of the whodunit that takes place within the context of Stoppard's play. A lavender-tuxedoed snob (complete with purple cummerbund and ruffle) who lords his second-string status over the fledgling Moon, Birdboot nonetheless has many failings as a reviewer: For starters, he's been romantically involved with the actresses who portray Felicity (Catherine DiBella) and Cynthia (Karen Erickson). Naturally, Birdboot's indiscretions do not sit well with the rest of the murder-mystery actors, who portray characters such as the shifty-eyed villain, Simon (Phillip A. Luna), the gossip-mongering maid, Mrs. Drudge (Judy Phelan-Hill), the wheelchair-bound Magnus (T. David Rutherford) and, of course, Scotland Yard's finest sleuth, Inspector Hound (Guy Williams).
Director Dodd wisely lets Stoppard's serious themes speak for themselves (for the last 35 years, Stoppard's been conducting an open-ended dialogue about truth and illusion), choosing instead to highlight the play's farcical elements. To that end, DiBella flounces and bounces her way across the stage, usually in the direction of any male body with a pulse; Erickson declaims her lines with all the subtlety of a North Sea foghorn and evokes thunderclaps and lightning flashes with a flick of her wrist; Luna prances from one hokey noir-inspired pose to the next, never failing to jerk his head sideways to ensure that the audience will notice his "good side"; the ubiquitous Phelan-Hill scowls and grimaces and nearly brings down the house with a ponderous tea-serving scene; and Williams is the epitome of cartoonish officialdom. All of which makes for a delightfully over-the-top experience.
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But even though Dodd and his talented actors are clearly having a good time, the performers' collection of theatrical in-jokes needs to be more crisply choreographed to reap the sort of runaway laughter that's built into Stoppard's farce. For instance, each time the characters mention the name of a supposedly deceased character, Dodd's actors halfheartedly turn toward a painting of the man and then continue on with their dialogue, a recurring bit that earns nothing but dead silence from the audience. Why not sharpen that moment by making the actors' moves more precise, briefly illuminating the old man's portrait for half a second and underscoring the group's collective homage with a short musical fanfare? After all, even master farceur Bert Lahr (of Cowardly Lion fame) maintained that such demonic devotion to detail was a comedian's greatest ally in coaxing laughter from surly crowds.
All in all, though, Dodd's actors manage to communicate Stoppard's themes while bursting a few self-important bubbles along the way.
The Real Inspector Hound, through May 23 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax, 361-2910.