The Actor's Nightmare & The Real Inspector Hound
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 22, 2008
T. Schreiber Studio is currently presenting a double-bill of comedies about the theatre, Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. It's a pretty felicitous pairing, and under the direction of Peter Jensen makes for a fast, fun evening where razor-sharp wit sits side-by-side with broad satire. Excellent central performances by Michael Black (in the Durang) and Julian Elfer and Rick Forstmann (in the Stoppard) plus the chance to see two well-crafted but infrequently produced works provide good reasons to check this offering out.
Black plays George Spelvin (and if you don't know why that in itself is funny, read this on Wikipedia). He's an accountant (or at least thinks he is; he also doesn't think his name is really George, but he's not sure). What he does know is that he is on stage, suffering through the circumstance named in this play's title—he doesn't know his lines, or even what play he is in. To make matters worse, the play itself keeps changing. First it's Private Lives, then it's Hamlet, then it's a crazy Samuel Beckett thing with garbage cans, and then...it's A Man for All Seasons, just before the execution scene. Durang is at his best here mangling Coward, Shakespeare, and Beckett with real panache. Black gets the intrepid George exactly right: game, good-humored, and utterly befuddled from start to finish. It's a very polished and funny performance.
Elfer and Forstmann portray two theatre critics, Moon and Blackboot, who are reviewing an English-country-house-murder-mystery melodrama called "The Real Inspector Hound." As a member of their profession, I must tell you I enjoyed Stoppard's characterizations much more than I did when I last saw Hound more than 15 years ago; he really nails the preoccupations, hypocrisies, and idiosyncrasies of the reviewer. But the crux of Hound is not just to poke critics in the ribs, nor even to send up (brilliantly) the customs and quirks of a certain kind of theatre, but rather to intricately craft a puzzle that can only be called Stoppardian, breaking the fourth wall in an unexpected way to bring the hapless Moon and Blackboot right into the thick of the action. Elfer's Moon, obsessed with his inadequacies and failings, is on-target; Forstmann's Blackboot, awed by his own importance, is even more dead-on ridiculous.
Jensen surrounds his leading men with a production that's anchored by George Allison's remarkable, stylish set depicting an old-fashioned proscenium theatre, complete with footlights, which is mostly bare for The Actor's Nightmare and then filled with detailed period furniture for The Real Inspector Hound; it's another triumphant design for this expert artist. Chris Rummel's sound design is invaluable and funny as well; appropriate costumes and lighting are provided by Anne Wingate and Andrea Boccanfuso, respectively.
The supporting casts include one actress who appears in both plays, Nan Wray; she's particularly on-the-money as Sarah Siddons, George Spelvin's co-star in Private Lives/Hamlet. Also worthy of mention are Therese Tucker, who is fine as the sometimes helpful, sometimes useless stage manager in Nightmare and Michael W. Murray as the archetypal but inept title character in Hound.
The Stoppard piece, drawing on its author's diabolical gift for hyper-complex plotting and his talent for high parody, was for me the more satisfying of the two items on the bill. But Black's hilarious turn as poor George Spelvin makes the Durang, the lesser in pure dramatic terms, entirely its equal in this delicious double-header.