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Theater Critics Try to Make a Play

Robert Stanton (Moon) in The Real Inspector Hound (photo by Scott Suchman for Shakespeare Theater)

Theater is an incestuous business, and it was even more so in the 18th century. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals and School for Scandal, targeted actors, playwrights, and producers as well as critics in his farce The Critic, premiered in 1779. In a streamlined adaptation that just opened at the Shakespeare Theater, Jeffrey Hatcher has kept the parts of the play, about half of it or so, that poke fun at theater critics and journalists who think they can cross the line and actually do what normally they only critique. This made it into a fine companion piece for Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, a one-act play about two theater critics who cross another kind of line into the theater, seen in a double-bill on Monday night at the Lansburgh Theater. The joke here, of course, is that Tom Stoppard once served as second-string theater critic for the Bristol Evening World. Through the connections he made writing reviews, much like the aspiring critic-playwrights in the Sheridan piece, Stoppard made the transition into writing plays.

Some viewers, who do not have a personal stake in the daily struggle of writing reviews, may not find the subject matter so engrossing. The style of the two plays may distance them farther, both the inside jokes of the Enlightenment critics in Sheridan and the absurdist turns of Stoppard. Fortunately this production, directed by Michael Kahn, is smart and beautifully produced, with performances that keep the dialogue crackling but with enough space and separation to be easily understood. In The Critic, John Ahlin (Mr. Dangle) and Robert Dorfman (Mr. Sneer) were the best as two masters of snark, who try to sink the play of the more naive Mr. Puff, played with oddly energy-sapping fussiness by Robert Stanton. The second part of this play had some of the funniest skewering of actors and their foibles, with strong ensemble contributions from Hugh Nees (Prompter), Sandra Struthers (Actress 1), and Charity Jones (Actress 2).

Other Articles:

Peter Mark, Playwrights get last word in delightful ‘Critic’ and ‘Real Inspector Hound’ (Washington Post, January 13)

Nelson Pressley, The wrath of Michael Kahn in comedies about critics (Washington Post, January 2)
As the "backup" critic Moon in Inspector Hound, Stanton was more subdued and, not coincidentally, more effective. In the double-casting, Ahlin was the most memorable in both of his roles, as he also excelled in the role of Birdboot, the theater critic most devoted to the beauty of actresses -- if you can accept the unbelievable idea that critics would chat about the performance under review, during or after it. In my experience, that is the worst form, not only because critics do not want to influence one another but also because they want their best lines to end up securely on the page the next day. The scenic designs of James Noone were most lavish in The Critic, especially the theater within the theater, complete with its Baroque stage effects of ocean and naval battle. The costumes (Murell Horton) were generally bright and garish in The Critic, while tending more toward tweed and evening gown in Inspector Hound.

This production runs through February 14, at the Lansburgh Theater.

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