Editor's note 7.21.22: Main Street Theater has extended the run for The Real Inspector Hound.
If nothing else, it's the names that may clue you in to the approach this Tom Stoppard play is taking. While Muldoon Manor would probably reside happily in any Agatha Christie mystery book or play, the fact that the two lead characters are named Moon and Birdboot indicates a less than straightforward approach to this murder mystery.
The two are each theater critics and not on the best of terms with each other. They're watching a murder mystery on stage and somehow get caught up in the action.
With The Real Inspector Hound, Main Street Theater returns for the fourth time to the early Stoppard play that not only has some fun with the model Christie built in The Mousetrap but calls upon the playwright's prior experience as a second-level theater critic in London.
Actor/director Claire Hart-Palumbo was asked to direct the one-act two years ago but COVID interrupted those plans. "Now we're finally putting on the boards."
"It's got a play within a play. It's got levels of reality within that play. And there are surprises and switches within switches that just make it sort of a unique piece. The play itself is very funny. It takes an absurdist view of life."
This play came after Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "Both of these plays are in that era — late '60s, early '70s — there's a lot of magical realism going on; there's a certain amount of surrealism going on," Hart-Palumbo said.
Stoppard was a journalist between the ages of 17 to 25 and decided he wanted to become a playwright, she said.
He got his start in Bristol and one of the things he was regularly assigned to cover was Bristol Old Vic, Hart-Palumbo said. "So if Peter O'Toole was coming up; he was becoming a mega star, he was there reviewing all of the plays, she said.
"And then when he went to London in about a seven-month period he reviewed 170 plays — a real workhorse," she said. "When he went to London, he was the second-string critic and that's a major theme in this play. "
One of the two critics, Moon, bemoans the fact that he is the second-string critic. "So whenever he shows up they ask 'Where's Higgs?' the main critic, she said.
"It speaks to his [Stoppard's] own personal experience as a second string critic and that sort of lack of identity he had," she said. "But he turns it on his head and makes it very funny."
The cast includes Elizabeth Marshall Black, Michelle Britton, John Feltch, David Harlan, Philip Hays, Paul Hope, Jim Salners and Alexandra Szeto-Joe. Hart-Palumbo said she usually is very specific in her blocking but in this one she's giving the actors more leeway. The one blocking complication they all have to deal with involves some things happening on stage that certain characters are not supposed to see.
"It's like putting a Chinese puzzle together."
Stoppard doesn't neglect to include the humanity of the situation, Hart-Palumbo said. "The crisis that Moon is going through that nobody knows who he is or what he does. He's the second string. And he's having this crisis based on his life choices. And I think this is something we can all relate to."
Houston audiences should be more than ready for a play like this now, Hart-Palumbo said. "Giving the audience something in the summer that’s fun and frothy and still intelligent is I think part of what Main Street has always been about."
Performances are scheduled July 16 through August
The production will also be available to view online August 4-14.