Canny mischief, cartoon murder6/3/2015
Only a rare theater scene offers a gem like this for free. “The Real Inspector Hound” charges no admission as part of the Fine Arts Series at Westminster Presbyterian. Nonetheless it maintains the standard set this winter with “The Mountaintop,” a haunting meditation on Martin Luther King Jr. “Inspector Hound,” though wildly different, delivers the same savvy and brio. In any other city, the show would run the price of bangers and mash with a pint of ale.
British food seems right for “Inspector Hound.” Set in a fogbound castle, peopled with upper-crust stereotypes, it sprays graffiti all over the mysteries of, for instance, Agatha Christie. But nobody makes such a mess as two critics, Birdboot and Moon. Perched over the set, they scribble, they gossip, and then their role grows truly mysterious.
Playwright Tom Stoppard seemingly always creates mischief, but generally he sets a brainier challenge, even in screenplays like “Shakespeare in Love.” Such stuff has won him awards from London to Hollywood, plus a knighthood. But this one-act remains his closest thing to pure comedy, and the Beaverdale production whips up a kind of ping-pong match, head-snapping. The one time the pace slackens, it’s to set up a deadpan zinger from Birdboot.
The critics’ give and take provides much of the drama. One puffs up self-righteously, then the other shrinks down ashamed, yet most of the way they remain in red velvet chairs above center-stage. This old-theater touch is typical of the canny props in April Zingler’s set. She’s even got a circular hunting horn, and overall, she’s made the best use of the Westminster space I’ve seen. Kudos especially for where she hid the body.
The dead man gets a line in the Playbill, actually — “Golden Globe nominee Joel Kinsler” — and he nails the part, no question. After all, the others aren’t “characters” either. They don’t have lives and pasts, really, and their dialog toys with familiar formulas. Three separate players make the same threat to a fourth: “I will kill you, Simon Gascoyne!”
An actress like Kellie Kramer, however, knows how to milk such material. Last seen in a very different role, the tragic Blanche DuBois of “Streetcar Named Desire,” here Kramer shows she can turn on a dime. One moment she melts into a man’s arms, and the next she and the ingénue, played by Megan Schettler-Schug, wheel around each other in a war dance. Up in the critics’ gallery, meanwhile, Craig Petersen, as Moon, gets a lifetime of hurt pride into one thrust of his beard.
No one, however, works this madness so well as Maxwell Schaeffer. He handles Birdboot, the play’s game-changer, and somehow works up both genuine heartsickness and hilarious self-delusion. This year Schaeffer hasn’t been so busy as in the past, but he remains at the top of his game — yet another proof of what Des Moines theater has to offer.
Overheard in the Lobby: Starting this weekend, Ankeny Theater presents “12 Angry Jurors” and Winterset Main Stage offers “Nunsense.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.