Tom Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound" at Dogwood Dell 

The Real Deal

Smart and funny are two words that seem unavoidable when describing the works of Tom Stoppard, the writer behind the movie "Shakespeare in Love" and the classic play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Even 30 years ago, when he assembled a broadly comic little farce called "The Real Inspector Hound," Stoppard couldn't help but stock it full to overflowing with wit both elegant and silly. As realized by director Mac Damron on the Dogwood Dell stage, this absurdist comedy is continually amusing and immensely satisfying.

Stoppard provides two overblown intellectual characters as the source for the highbrow humor (they're theater critics, imagine that!). To provide a source for more slapstick material, he has the critics watch a hilariously exaggerated whodunit. Cleverness becomes genius when Stoppard stretches the bounds of reality to allow the critics and the play they're watching to interact in surprising and surreal ways.

Stan Kelly is sublime as the curmudgeonly older critic, Birdboot, who pronounces his journalistic integrity even as he violates it by openly swooning over young actresses. As Moon, the bitter second-string critic, Scott Nogi is Kelly's perfect foil, deftly delivering the most wonderfully bombastic critical diatribes. Barbara Fisher's inflated portrayal of Cynthia, the object of Birdboot's affections, is admirably overdone.

The impressive set designed by Ted Boelt convincingly reconstructs an ornate British drawing room, complete with green marble columns and authentic-looking antiques. What a shame that "Inspector Hound" will only be on the case for one more week; this accomplished production could have delighted hundreds, even thousands, in an extended run.

"Hound" is preceded by a 30-minute minidrama by local playwright Martha Hill Newell, called "The Day Joe Montana Retired." The play is hobbled by clumsy exposition and unrealistic language (e.g., a grown man saying, "You're swell!"), but is engagingly acted by stage vets Mary Jane Walsh and Chris Bass Randolph.

"The Real Inspector Hound" runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at Dogwood Dell Amphitheater through July 22. Admission is free.

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