The Kansas City Actors Theatre closes out its “summer of mystery” with a finely tuned production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound.”
Stoppard’s play really isn’t a mystery except perhaps in the metaphysical sense. Rather, it’s a parody of the stage-mystery genre as well as an amusing post-modern commentary on the boundaries between illusion and reality.
The narrative through-line is pretty simple — two theater critics, seated side by side, watch a play that feels a lot like Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Neither of them gives the play his full attention. Moon, a second-string critic, is obsessed with status as a reviewer who gets an assignment only when the first-string critic is unavailable. Birdboot, his colleague, can’t really hide his lecherous interest in the production’s young actresses, even as he proclaims his innocence. Ultimately, the two are drawn into the play within a play, giving the whole enterprise the feeling of a “Twilight Zone” episode.
Director Mark Robbins brings together most of the actors who performed in KCAT’s sharp production of “The Mousetrap.” Gary Neal Johnson plays Moon opposite Victor Raider-Wexler as Birdboot, and each man delivers a memorable performance.
Moon complains a lot about his second-banana standing but eventually he begins to question the essence of the play itself — and, by extension, all of theater. Johnson plays Moon with an expression suggesting a chronic headache, as if he were trying to work out an insoluble problem. Raider-Wexler, in contrast, is a blustery presence. He strikes a nice balance between Birdboot’s narcissism, lechery and pomposity.
The mystery they are ostensibly reviewing unfolds in a drawing room populated with fictional stock characters. Nobody notices a corpse on the floor until fairly late in the proceedings. Matt Weiss plays Simon Gascoyne, a young man who has made his way to inaccessible Muldoon Manor by following old smuggler’s trails through the cliffs. Simon, it seems, is carrying on affairs with the willowy Cynthia Muldoon (Natalie Liccardello) and the tennis-playing Felicity Cunningham (Emily Petersen).
Other characters include Major Muldoon (Charles Fugate), who appears to be restricted to a wheelchair; Mrs. Drudge (Melinda McCrary), the stage-direction-shouting housekeeper; and the bumbling Inspector Hound (Rusty Sneary).
These actors have a fine time playing the broad gestures and stilted delivery of melodrama. That can be funny on its own terms. But much of Stoppard’s humor is cerebral, and these actors enunciate it beautifully. Ultimately, Stoppard’s play dissolves into a surrealistic cloud — but this production delivers plenty of laughs before the fog bank rolls in.