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Dasterdly Satire: HMT’s The Real Inspector Hound.

A Clever Pair

By James Yeara

The Real Inspector Hound and The 15 Minute Hamlet

By Tom Stoppard, directed by Terry Rabine

Home Made Theater, through Feb. 24

Director Terry Rabine has produced a wonder at Home Made Theater: a tightly paced community-theater production of Tom Stoppard’s one-act The Real Inspector Hound. First performed in 1968, soon after his breakout masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound is a 55-minute spoof on Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap by way of Brecht, Beckett, and, um, Stoppard. Rabine keeps his cast of Home Made regulars on the mark with their broad English accents, gestures, and caricatures lifted from Christie’s popular murder mystery (which is to theater what macaroni and cheese is to fine cuisine), which makes for a jolly good time full of giggles, snorts, guffaws, and tittering from the Spa Little Theater audience.

Scenic designer Dale Conklin’s nicely rendered “Muldoon Manor, on the Scottish Moors,” features easy-open French doors up left and up right, from which victims, adulterous lovers, and would be murderers come and go with aplomb. A huge Gothic arch upstage center reminds the audience how eerie and arch Agatha Christie can be. The Real Inspector Hound also features two rows of red theater seats downstage left, slightly askew of the stage, exactly like the ones the audience sits in (only not so askew).

Sitting in these seats as the show opens (cue pretentiously ominous but oddly humorous theme music from sound designers Terry Rabine and Barry Streifert) are Moon (JJ Buechner) and Birdboot (Stephen Davis), two very English theater critics waiting for something to happen on stage. While the duo wait, they not only pierce the “fourth wall,” they obliterate it in meta-theater fashion. The Brechtian device is executed like verbal phaser fire.

“Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar and decided it’s first-class family entertainment, but if it goes on beyond half-past 10, it’s self-indulgent,” Birdboot announces as he begins reviewing the play, which begins with a dead body downstage center exactly between the two sets of French doors. “Has it started yet?” Birdboot asks Moon after waiting several seconds for the dead body to move. “Yes” Moon answers testily, as they wait for something to happen. “Are you sure?” Birdboot queries querulously several seconds later, to which Moon peevishly answers, “It’s a pause.” “You can’t start with a pause!” Birdboot explodes. “If you want my opinion, there’s total panic back there!”

The two critics talk throughout the play (they are direct descendents either of Waiting for Godot’s Didi and Gogo or of the title characters from Stoppard’s first masterpiece, and speak in that parenthetical voice real drama critics love to speak in) before daringly joining the onstage inaction of Mrs. Drudge (Winnie Bowen), Simon (Chris Cook), Felicity (Clare Daly), Cynthia Muldoon (an excellent Sari Bobbin), Magnus Muldoon (Phil Sheehan), and Inspector Hound (Ron DeLucia) as they wait for the homicidal madman roaming the moors to strike again. The two critics soon love, lie, reveal, and die onstage, just as the characters do in Christie’s Mousetrap.

That Rabine manages to keep all this inaction interesting, and his cast moving and gesticulating with precision is rippingly first-rate. That the second one-act, The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (which runs a little longer than promised, the cast having given up the ghost in the earlier one-act), doesn’t fare as well is lamentable. But it may be worth noting that the pairing of the two makes for a dramaturgical tingle; Christie’s The Mousetrap is named after the play within Hamlet.

Brave Man, Blah Portrait

Trumbo

By Christopher Trumbo, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Feb. 24

Trumbo is a popular, two-character, staged reading of letters written by Oscar-winning, “Hollywood 10” blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo’s son, Christopher, himself a screenwriter, compiled the letters in chronological order and included personal commentary. The elder Trumbo’s bravery, integrity, and fire is placed in context by the younger Trumbo’s recollections of that dangerous time when politicians wrapped themselves in “patriotism” and used fear and threats to violate the United States Constitution. Given the contemporary parallels, it is little wonder that this 90-minute one-act has been performed by such luminaries as Ed Harris, Richard Dreyfuss, Brian Dennehy, Roger Rees, Tim Robbins, Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, Paul Giamatti, and Eddie Izzard since its opening in 2003. Think of it as A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters for those who care about life, liberty, and the American way.

Trumbo recounts how Dalton Trumbo was jailed in 1947 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for refusing to testify about the Communist Party influence in the movie industry. He was convicted of contempt of Congress and jailed for 10 months in Kentucky. Christopher Trumbo comments on the irony of visiting his father in prison for “un-American activities” while confronting the realities of Jim Crow in a Kentucky movie theater where black and white were kept separate by law. The subsequent 13 years found the blacklisted Trumbo unable to earn a living as a screenwriter. He moved to Mexico in a vain attempt to economize, and resorted to using front men and pseudonyms for his screenplays (his script for The Brave One, written under the pseudonym “Robert Rich,” won the 1956 Academy Award for Best Screenplay). The subsequent triumphs of his screenplays for Exodus, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun (based on his novel of the same name), and Papillon did not pacify Trumbo’s vehement beliefs or his contempt for those who did name names for HCUA during the Cold War. So he wrote, wrote, wrote—verbose, cantankerous letters to creditors, the Screenwriters Guild, even the clueless principal of his daughter’s elementary school.

In his eulogy of Dalton Trumbo recounted here, fellow blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jr. said Trumbo was “wise, funny, greedy, generous, vain, biting, solicitous, ruthless, tender-hearted, devious, contentious, superbly rational, altruistic, prophetic, shortsighted and indefatigable.” Some of those qualities shine through in this staged reading; Seated behind a tidy wood desk downstage left in a dark gray business suit and bright red tie, Dalton Trumbo (Thom Christopher) reads from his letters in a limestone gravel voice, occasionally looking up at the audience from behind his black-rimmed glasses. Christopher Trumbo stands at a wooden lectern down right and reads his narration, sometimes moving closer to Dalton Trumbo’s table, most memorably during the reading of a three-Kleenex letter from the elder Trumbo to his away-from-home-for-the-first-time son studying at Columbia University. The long, magnificently worded letter was both a treatise on and reminiscence of onanism. Dalton Trumbo could amuse and advocate simultaneously.

Unfortunately, Trumbo the play could better serve the man. While staged readings take less time and less money to produce, the actors still need to be familiar with the text, and there’s too much fumbling and losing places here to keep the kick and rhythm of Dalton Trumbo. While the use of projected newsreels and photos in PowerPoint displays upstage center add some movement and visuals to Trumbo, director Julianne Boyd has done such stunning work in the Berkshires that this staged reading looks flat and sounds underrehearsed, and while the subject matter engages, the production does not. The final black-and-white photo of a bare-chested Dalton Trumbo sitting in his white bathtub surrounded by paper, pen, mugs, and cigarettes captures the man far better than the principal’s office-like tidiness presented here. Dalton Trumbo and BSC deserve better.

—James Yeara

 


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