The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound
by John Stoltenberg
I just love it when theater laughs at itself. Who can forget the clockwork guffaws of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, or Shakespeare’s enchanting send-up of theatrical conceits in the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Can a sculpture make fun of sculpture? Can a song spoof singing? Can a ballet satirize dance? Well, maybe, sure. But have a look at the exhilarating double bill of one acts now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, and you might well be persuaded that theater as an art form is uniquely suited to self-lampoon.
In the hands of a few fiendishly clever playwrights, that is, plus a terrifically crafty creative team.
The first play is Jeffrey Hatcher’s inspired adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 The Critic. In it eight great comic actors in sumptuously silly period costumes spin a cockamamie story of conceited playwrights, nincompoop theater critics, and no-talent actors that had me belly-laughing from beginning to end.
The second is Tom Stoppard’s 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, performed by the same cast. In it two theater critics watching an absurd play-within-the-play whodunnit become themselves, bizarrely, characters in the plot of it. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first, Inspector Hound yields up brain-tickling takes on illusion and reality that make its satirical trust no less satisfying.
Both these works are directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn with amazingly zany zest and nonstop jesting. Kahn is also to be credited with pairing them purposely because they both take pokes at theater reviewers. Not always with gentle spoofing. Sometimes with scathing resentment. Which of course makes this double bill doubly intriguing for anyone such as myself known to publicly weigh in with opinions about performances on stage.
That serious intent can be read in how Shakespeare Theatre Company has framed this production, surrounding it with historical context and chewy commentary. I was especially fascinated by an article commissioned for the occasion by Robert Brustein, whose writing about theater in The New Republic and elsewhere I remember reading years ago like revelations (alongside criticism by such other early influencers as Eric Bentley, Richard Gilman, Tom Driver, and Stanley Kauffmann). In “Drama Criticism: The Old Age of an Age-Old Profession,” printed in the STC program and available online, Brustein writes:
People who judge the theatre have always been uneasy with one other. But in the long-running contention between the theatre reviewer and the drama critic, it is not often recognized that the two professionals are pursuing entirely separate paths. The reviewer is primarily interested in product, while the critic is more absorbed with process. The reviewer can turn out a notice between the falling of the curtain and the rising of the sun, while the critic normally has at least a week to revise, reenact, and redact first impressions.
Brustein goes on to elaborate on this critical distinction. “The reviewer,” he says, “steers audiences towards shows thought worth the ticket price.” I think of this type of theater coverage as ratings by a solo product tester claiming Consumer Reports objectivity and authority.
On the other hand, “the critic,” Brustein says, “is less concerned with sitting in judgment on a particular play than in trying to describe how it fits in a playwright’s artistic trajectory, in a company’s season, or in the history of dramatic literature.”
I would add to that: the conscientious critic tries to describe how a particular play relates to the life we live and the world we live in. To my mind, the most valuable focus of good theater writing is the locus where art and life are having a conversation. Who is saying what to whom? And why? And to what emotional effect and social impact?
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound are a comedy hoot and will surely be a hit. But they go so far beyond entertaining that…well, it’s not funny. Together they prompt an important discussion about the function of theater writing in this town, one that has often been whispered about in the wings but needs to come downstage front and center.
See them, laugh your head off at them, then see if you don’t want to talk back.