"The Real Inspector Hound" is set in a London theatre during a performance of "Murder at Muldoon Manor". It is, quite literally, a play within a play. At the center is a simple murder mystery, replete with an eccentric uncle in a wheel chair (Major Magnus Muldoon). The murder victim is already dead (and under the sofa, in fact) at the start of the play, and a bit of humor manages to keep him from being immediately noticed. Watching the performance of "Murder at Muldoon Manor" are two critics named Birdboot and Moon.
"The Real Inspector Hound" was written by Tom Stoppard, who must have known that I would unwittingly add a third layer to the performance. After all, I was sitting in plain view with a pad and pen reviewing the reviewers as they reviewed the play. A few people sitting nearby kept watching me as if I might jump up at any moment. (I thought about doing so, but decided that it would be difficult to review from the parking lot.)
The play begins as the critics Moon and Birdboot chat before the show. We quickly learn that Moon has a co-columnist named Higgs (who isn't present this evening). In fact, the topic of Higgs' very existence appears to be a severe sore spot with Moon as he erupts, "Why does everyone always ask about Higgs?! Why doesn't anyone ask about ME?!" Through the course of the play, the critics launch into tiffs and outbursts. Any mention of Higgs, which occurs frequently from Birdboot, causes Moon to slip into paranoid delusions about his own worth as a critic as compared to Higgs. Birdboot, on the other hand, has recently been spotted "on the town" with some actresses that he has recently 'reviewed', and there is some speculation about this from Moon. Birdboot is of course very sensitive on the subject, declaring that he is only affording the actresses an appropriate amount of publicity (but we wonder what Birdboot's wife thinks about the whole matter). Repeatedly, the critics wind up raising their voices, sometimes arguing, sometimes trying to out-criticize the other, as they speak to the audience around them.
The most cursory of glances at the inner play ("Murder at Muldoon Manor") reveals a bland play with terrible acting. By which I do not mean that the actors were poor actors. Actually, their performances were all more than competent. The play specifically asked most of them to act poorly as Stoppard toys with stereotypical characters. The incompetent Inspector Hound (reminiscent of the immortal Inspector from the Pink Panther), the mysterious, gun-wielding arm in the window, and the flirtatious vixen (actually named Felicity) all play out the standard Agatha Christy parts in a brainlessly shallow plot.
However, that's the point. "The Real Inspector Hound" is poking fun of, and applying subtle twists to, the cookie-cutter plot. "The Real Inspector Hound" is basically one lone scene with no breaks whatsoever. The inner play, "Murder at Muldoon Manor", is layed out in three scenes (vehemently described by one of the critics as "this play has shown itself to have a beginning, a middle, and most certainly will have an end!"). By the end of the second scene, the occupants of Muldoon Manor have discovered the body under the sofa, that the phone line has been cut, and that they are trapped by fog and foul weather. Simon Gascoyne, the "red herring" of the murder mystery, according to Birdboot, is the best suspect, until his untimely death at the end of the second scene.
During the short break before the third scene, the stage is empty and dark, except, of course, for the actor playing the corpse, who was under the sofa when I took my seat, and who remained there until the curtain call. At this point, the phone on stage rings (this is the phone whose line the actors had discovered cut in the second scene). The phone rings and rings and rings... This is the spot where I almost stood up. Suddenly, Moon stands up and darts onto the stage and into the gloom to pick up the phone. "Hello...", he says cautiously. He begins to look puzzled as he holds the phone out for Birdboot saying, "It's for you..." Birdboot mounts the stage and picks up the receiver. As he says hello, he picks up the severed phone cord with his other hand. "Myrtle!" he exclaims, "I told you never to call me at work!" He then goes through some verbal gymnastics to get his wife off the phone without his having to say "I love you, too" in front of the audience. Finally, he manages to hang up the phone and starts for his seat. However, he stops at the edge of the stage as curiousity pulls him to the body under the sofa. A quick peak, and he announces, "It's Higgs!!" At this point he darts for his seat, but he is caught on stage as the lights go up for the third scene of "Murder at Muldoon Manor".
"Birdboot, get back in your seat!" yells Moon, but it's too late. Birdboot is mistaken for Simon Gascoyne as the actors play the first scene again (yes, the first scene). At this point, I thought that this seemed like a tenuous idea for a play, but it was actually very well done. The poor critic on stage can't remember his lines (we write them down, not memorize them) and gets his stage movements mostly wrong, while the actors do a wonderful job of carrying a lousy actor through the whole scene. The first scene ends (for the second time) and Birdboot is now caught up in the performance.
I'm not sure if it is infatuation with the lead actress, or perhaps some old dream of being on stage, instead of in the audience, that holds him there. But there he stands, in the dark, developing theories about the murder as Moon tries to coax him back to his seat. The lights are raised, and Birdboot dives into the second scene determined to find out who did it. I couldn't help but wonder if he was trying to solve the mystery set forth by the play, or trying to figure out what Higgs is doing under the sofa. In the process, he gets shot like the original Simon. Everyone saw it coming. After all, the cast thinks he is Simon, and Simon gets his at the end of the second scene the first time around. The difference is, Simon gets up and leaves the stage when the lights go down, Birdboot remains dead on the floor until the final curtain call.
Moon rushes onto the stage only to find that Birdboot is really dead. He, too, checks the original body under the sofa, and we begin to wonder if perhaps Moon didn't kill Higgs. But, there's no time to think as the lights return again for scene one. We watch scenes one and two for the third time. By now the confusion is growing (on stage and in my notes), and some of the cast's lines are literally gibberish. For a moment, during the performance, I thought it was my hearing, but my companion confirmed the gibberish I had perceived. The second scene happens to contains a [card] game of bridge, but by the third rendition the lines sound more like the Three Stooges playing charades. There's a rapid exchange of lines ending with Moon screaming, "Bingo!" and laying his cards down.
By the time we actually get to the third scene of "Murder at Muldoon Manor", Inspector Hound, who had arrived in the second scene (all three times around) and subsequently left, sneaks out with Simon (who died in the second scene, the first time around) to take the critics' seats. By this point, we aren't watching a play within a play anymore. The structure is gone, as if someone put a mixer into those nice layers of Jello and Cool Whip that mom used to make, and all that remains is utter, delicious confusion and comedy.
I had the pleasure of reviewing the play in the wonderfully small and intimate black box theatre at the Wilber Drama Workshop at Lehigh University. A presentation on a more traditional stage might have some drawbacks. At this presentation, the critics were seated between the real audience and the stage, a bit off to the left. In a more classic theatre, they would probably have been placed in the with the audience.
No matter where it's presented, the direction of the play is the keystone.
Eric Beatty does a terrific job of keeping the action moving all over the
stage. In addition the focus of the play, and its action, moved through
various depths from the "Murder at Muldoon Mansion" play within a play, to the
critics and back. The actors do an excellent job of giving the often flat
stereotypes a fresh, comic life.