The theatre critic might well be the focus of the satiric lampoon, now on stage at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, but it is the entire Theatrical Industry that gets speared.
Witty and cerebral, The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound takes aim at theatre’s culture of frivolity, its cult of personality, its celebrity pandering, and its puffery. The critic is its antagonist and, paradoxically, its chief ally.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s self-referential The Critic, adapted for modern American audiences by Jeffrey Hatcher, starts the evening off, and it does with a flurry of linguistically excellent fluff–wit at its finest.
The curtain open and theatre critic Mr. Dangle (John Ahlin) immediately ushers in a couple of belly laughs. He reads (or does not read) story after story about turmoil and upheaval: the American Revolution has begun.
Mr. Dangle will have none of it, however. The triviality of revolution has kicked his review of last night’s theatrical opening out of the newspaper. How dare they!
Dangle’s wife, played with cool demeanor by Naomi Jacobson, chastises her husband for his lack of interest in politics and the world. Dangle is a theatre critic, however, who is in charge of other critics, a job of immense importance. Indeed! Let them eat Theatre!
Visitor and fellow critic, Mr. Sneer (Robert Dorfman), enters, having fared the revolution far better. His review was published and–with a name like his you can be sure it ravaged the show–and he did! Too long, too long, too long!
After the actress Mrs. Buxom (Sandra Struthers) and the singer Signora Décolleté (Charity Jones) enter and exits with barely enough time for Mr. Dangle to express his ever firm desire to get to know them better (yes, the critic’s aphrodisiac power as the maker of fame and fortune is on full display!), we meet Mr. Puff (Robert Stanton).
Stanton’s Puff has mastered the art of “puffing”, which is the writer’s or the advertiser’s ability to inlay his “phraseology with variegated chips of exotic metaphor” or, to use contemporary vernacular, the ability to “put lipstick on a pig.”
In the used-car business, it’s the ability to sell a lemon as a luxury limo.
In the theatre industry, it’s the ability to sell a piece of trite-nonsense as anything but.
It seems Mr. Puff is also a playwright and he has written a piece of trite-nonsense, that is pretending to be a tragedy. It’s called The Spanish Armada and is currently in “rehearsal” at Mr. Richard Sheridan’s theatre, though the famous playwright knows nothing about it.
What follows is Mr. Puff’s farcical attempt to please Mr. Sheridan with a tragedy that is more bathos than pathos, and has way too many beards.
Mr. Catron plays the man of many beards, giving each buffoon his own distinct buffoonery–voice, pose, pontificate.
The poor Prompter, played by Hugh Nees, is beyond lovable. He does his best to fulfill Mr. Puff’s every extreme desire to flatter the absent Sheridan, always to comic effect.
Ironically, after The Critic premiered in 1779, Sheridan stopped participating in theatre’s creative endeavors. He continued managing the Drury Lane Theatre, which he owned; but his passion turned toward politics, becoming a member of England’s House of Commons.
The evening second offering, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound vaults us 200 years forward. An absurd murder mystery has opened and two theatre critics are in attendance.
The play has begun, or maybe it hasn’t begun, maybe it has “paused” (but can a play begin with a “pause”?). A body is under the divan and the maid (Naomi Jacobson) answers the phone.
Moon (Robert Stanton) and Birdboot (John Ahlin) are our two critics. They watch the “play-within-the-play”, or don’t watch it, as they talk about their jobs but not the actress Birdboot has woo with his positive reviews; and they eat chocolate.
A murderer is on the loose at the estate, presumably Simon Gascoyne (John Catron) is, or maybe isn’t, the murderer.
Maybe he’s just having an affair with Cynthia Muldoon (Charity Jones), who has lost her husband, Albert, but who hates Felicity Cunningham (Sandra Struthers), who is also having an affair with Simon. Only Albert’s half-brother Major Magnus (Hugh Nees) knows for sure. Or does he?
You get the picture. An absurd murder mystery! Who done it? Not really. The play is an excuse for high wit and gimmickry.
Agatha Christie would not be proud.
When the two critics become insinuated into the action of the play-within-the-play, that’s when things really get strange, but no less non sequitur, as theatre and the world at large fail to converse with one another, in much the same way Sheridan’s The Critic failed to address the revolution.
When Stoppard’s critics enter the mystery, the play’s action becomes more about them and their lusts and desires than about the play’s.
Under the direction of Michael Kahn, The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound engage the audience. The wit and word play is both articulate and fun to hear. Both plays would have benefited from greater physical humor and situational invention, as the comedy lags a little too much at times.
The design team, led by James Noone’s sets and Mark McCullough’s lights, was fabulous, with particular praise going to Murell Horton’s costumes.
In Reader Response Theory, advanced by Stanley Fish among others, the work of fiction does not exist on the page (or on the stage) in isolation from its audience. In fact, the work of fiction only exists in the reader’s (the audience’s) imagination, the space between the printed word (the spoken word) and the reader’s (the audience’s) own understanding of the world.
In other words, the reader (the audience) has a much greater influence over the artistic experience than artists would be comfortable acknowledging.
In the best of all theatre worlds, the critic would be the ideal audience member for that theatre’s patrons. The critic would share the cultural referents that the theatre’s artists have and, upon which they have built their art.
The world is seldom at its best: but then how could it be otherwise, given the meaning of the word “best”.
Such is life.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, and one intermission.
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound plays through February 14, 2016 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.