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An Inspector Calls Pays Off, Predictably

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The Setup: Don't expect fireworks. But for the patient, a highly satisfactory evening can be passed watching J.B. Priestley's drawing room drama, An Inspector Calls, here set in a formal dining room. The plot is a series of revelations, revolving around the closely knit, though quarrelsome, Birling family. The plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent, but things pick up, after a slow beginning filled with exposition, when a police inspector arrives to ask questions regarding a young woman who had committed suicide nearby.

The Execution: The good news is that the director, Jeannette Clift George, has created a smoothly functioning ensemble of actors, with a real sense of family, a feeling that these people live with and know each other all too well.

I wish Lee Walker was a bit more authoritative as Arthur Birling, patriarch and captain of industry, but he is effective, and I especially admired Sarah Cooksey as the matriarch and Abby Bergstrom as the Birling daughter, whose blunt, dry observations generate appropriate laughs in Act Two. Jason Hatcher rounds out the family as the errant son, in a largely thankless role, since he has little to do in Act One except to drink too much port, look sullen and interrupt. Soon to join the family, by wedding the daughter, and displaying the smugness and hypocrisy of the English moneyed class, is Gerald Croft, played by Chip Simmons. The outsider is Inspector Goole, and Marty Blair makes his taciturn questioning and shift of tone credible. We can see why the Birling family would tell him, well, far too much. There's a curious out-of-character speech Inspector Goole is compelled to deliver before he exits, in which a socially conscious message is awkwardly shoe-horned in - no one will ever accuse Priestley of subtlety. After falling into disfavor, a revival made the play famous in London and Broadway because of a remarkable set, in which a Victorian house was made to collapse and then be resurrected, not during an intermission or blackout, but before our very eyes. I saw it on Broadway, and, believe me, it helped.

The Verdict: The audience anticipates some of the more predictable events, but the ending brings a few twists and surprises that pay off well.

(Through April 3, A. D. Players Theatre, 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.)

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