Stage Notes

For the past year or so, I'd been wondering if Main Street Theater continued to deserve its reputation as one of Houston's better small companies. If its choice of plays wasn't marginal, the casting was dubious. And the direction was oftentimes suspect. But with The Real Inspector Hound -- Tom Stoppard's highbrow whodunit farce -- Main Street is back on track. The production, like the play, is a riot.

Hound opens with two critics attending a premiere of a new murder mystery. One critic reviews with the intention of sleeping with the actresses: "I think," he breathes, contemplating the leading lady as she kisses her man, "she has her mouth open." The other is preoccupied with what being a second-string critic means: "His absence confirms my presence," he ruminates about his superior, to whom his identity is bound. "His presence precludes mine." The play they're watching parodies the best (worst?) of the Agatha Christie genre. "Hello, the drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring?" is how the housekeeper answers the phone. When the phone won't stop ringing, one of the critics, annoyed, answers it, and in a Pirandello-ian twist, illusion and reality blur. The results are nimble, hilarious and ultimately cunning.

So is Rebecca Greene Udden's direction. The audience steps over a corpse when entering the theater, and applauds it at the final curtain call. Serving coffee has never been more ludicrously tension-filled, and cast members eye one another when playing bridge like the world is at stake. There are melodramatic gestures worthy of soap opera Emmys, and coincidences so damning that the stage practically shivers. Stoppard's double entendres are given lots of breathing room, and while Udden misses an opportunity by not seating the critics literally on top of the action, she's mostly mindful of Stoppard's musings, making the antics reasonably delirious.

From the largely proficient cast, Mark J. Roberts is an amusing inspector: part John Cleese, part Maxwell Smart. As a spurned ingenue, young Traci Lynn Shannon, all pregnant pauses, nervous tics and scattershot voice, also shines. With a chandelier hanging here, a white-trimmed wall angled there and a hardwood floor dominating, Maurice Tuttle continues to grow as a set designer, expanding his abilities to get the most out of the problematic Main Street stage. And Melanie Schuessler's drawing room costumes are spiffily appropriate -- except that the tuxedoed critics are more smugly debonair than any I know.

-- Peter Szatmary

The Real Inspector Hound plays through August 13 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706.

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Peter Szatmary