At one point in “The Real Inspector Hound,” the play’s five central characters realize that there may be a murderer in their midst and they all rush to grab improvised weapons — the maid gets a rope, the ex-soldier in a wheelchair clutches a bent pipe and a young socialite fiercely wields a candlestick. This far into the play, audience members who know the board game “Clue” have seen this reference coming from a long way away (with the characters in color-coded outfits, it’s a surprise that the girl in red isn’t actually named “Miss Scarlett”). But this is part of the point. “Hound” purposefully revels in recycled dialogue, and send-ups of character types any reader of Agatha Christie already knows far too well, because it also features two critics who sit behind the stage. “Derivative,” says one. “I know who did it!” shouts the other.
Directed by Alexi Sargeant ’15 and playing in the Calhoun Cabaret this weekend, “The Real Inspector Hound” presents a formally daring challenge. The script, written by Tom Stoppard (who earned fame for his witty rewrite of “Hamlet” in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”), stuffs both a play within a play — the story of a murder in Muldoon Manor — and commentary on that play by a pair of critics into a single act. Initially, the critics merely remark on the action, but, as the plot zips forward, their reality blurs into that of the characters onstage. I won’t tell you how or why, but, by the end of the play, everyone becomes involved in both plots.
In an early scene, Mrs. Drudge, Caitlin Miller ’16, listens to a police report on the sighting of a madman in the nearby moors and then comments on how isolated Muldoon Manor is. The joke relies on your knowledge that nearly every British murder mystery takes place in a manor house cut off from the world. In fact, “Hound” works through the genre’s standard tropes one by one — from a confrontation over tea to a game of bridge played with an increasingly ridiculous and inscrutable set of rules (so pretty much any game of bridge). At times this lampooning becomes extreme, when the characters make several references in a row to “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” for instance. The humor lands if you know what it’s sending up, but those who think of Sherlock Holmes as just another Robert Downey Jr. action hero will find little to latch onto. And while lovers of Victorian mysteries might laugh, they, most likely, will not.
Of course, the two critics at the back of the stage tell the audience this opinion during the play, among their other quips. Birdfoot, Alexander Oki ’13, takes an old-fashioned perspective to his job. He is carrying on an affair with one actress, and, halfway through the play, he falls in love with the other. Moon, Connor Lounsbury ’14, on the other hand, is more serious. The second-string reviewer for his local paper, he dreams of one day taking the lead — at one point, he even considers murder in a speech that Lounsbury delivers with maniacal glee. But the script also places the critics in the position of audience stand-ins. Once during the performance, they both looked into their programs for an actor’s name, and I realized that I was doing the same thing. Later, when the plot puts the critics in mortal danger, I began to feel highly uncomfortable, as I had spent so much time following their read on the plot. Critics and audience members, as Stoppard points out, really don’t think for themselves.
“Inspector Hound” ends with a big reveal, and, without spoiling anything, it works. That is not to say that the play has an emotional core — the actors play each character as a caricature, complete with a varying array of near-British accents — but that the conceit makes sense. By the time the curtain falls, a murder has been solved. The most satisfying part of any whodunit is the intellectual challenge, the way it keeps you on your feet until the end of the play. And, like every part of a good mystery, Stoppard’s extra layer of commentary provides yet another satisfying way of pointing in the wrong direction.