Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Actor's Nightmare/The Real Inspector Hound

It's one thing to break the fourth wall -- it's another to break it well. T. Schrieber Studios takes their best shot at it with a double bill of two of the greatest (and most dissimilar) one-acts to ever deconstruct the theater, Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. It's dressed up rather nicely by miraculous set designer George Allison, who conjures up a classical theater's wooden boards, proscenium frame, red pull-curtain, and "box" seats, but Peter Jensen's direction, sharp enough for Durang, is dulled by Stoppard, and the play ultimately serves best as a primer in the differences in highbrow and lowbrow comedy.

The series opens with the completely passable entertainment of The Actor's Nightmare, in which George Spelvin (Michael Black) finds himself stuck in Coward's Private Lives, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and a mash-up of Beckett (Endgame) and Odets (Waiting for Lefty). Durang knows and loves his source material enough to properly send it up, and it's always fun to revisit this comic gem. The looseness of the play also fits the company well, as it gives plenty of room for interpretation; at some moments, Black goes with the flow, at others he damns himself. He's also got a great supporting cast, particularly Nan Wray, who dames herself with great double-takes of disgust as she tries, to no avail, to cue her partner in. The only problem is that while Black grows more panicked, especially as he starts reminiscing about his nun days, the play itself remains static, never building to the dread (or perhaps redemptive) climax of the Sir Thomas More scene.

After a brief intermission, the action resumes in the drawing room of a rather luxurious (and completely isolated) private home. A clear send-off of the murder-mystery genre (specifically Agatha Christie's long-running The Mousetrap), Stoppard elevates his message by focusing not on the rather dim-witted action, but on two critics, Moon and Birdboot (Julian Elfer and Rick Forstmann, who bring to mind the Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier of Deathtrap). As poor Simon (Shane Colt Jerome) plods towards his inevitable death at the hands of scorned lover Felicity (Jenny Strassburg), current sweetheart Cynthia (Maggie Dashiell), or jealous cripple Magnus (Ben Prayz), the two critics play with the idea of identity -- only rather than guess at the murderer, Birdboot gushes how far his particular "expertise" will get him with the actresses, and Moon questions his own role as a second-string critic, waxing only when his partner wanes. Both find themselves on stage, paralleling the action of the first act, and they are both hilarious. However, such distorting farce requires perfect control, and none of the points are really sharp enough to drive home the comedy of the inner world; as such, we are left with just the intellectual wit of the outer shell.

Truth is, Peter Jensen holds back too much on the physical actions of both plays, forcing them to be artfully funny rather than actually so. I've never seen such reserved (read: fake) slaps, nor such underplayed cues (the dramatic underscore should never upstage the actor). The idea of a clueless Inspector Hound plodding around a dead body before finally stumbling (literally) upon it sounds hilarious, but in execution, Michael W. Murray looks as if he's straining every muscle in his body to not notice what's going on. The same could be said for Therese Tucker, who plays too much of her actions to the audience, rather than focusing on the necessary efficiency of her role -- to get on and off stage, sneaking poor George his line, without being seen. Comedy works best when there are no strings attached: here, the stress marks are too apparent. Again, the technical presentation is marvelous (three cheers to the self-effacing low-budget smoke machine), and it smooths over enough rough spots to sell the shows -- just not the comedy.

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