On Stage: No One Loves a Critic

by Chuck Conconi

Shakespeare Theatre’s combined plays explore the critic/actor/playwright relationship. 

Robert Stanton as Mr. Puff, Charity Jones as Actress 2, and John Catron as Actor in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Critic, directed by Michael Kahn. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Robert Stanton as Mr. Puff, Charity Jones as Actress 2, and John Catron as Actor in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Critic, directed by Michael Kahn. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

It’s true: Nobody loves a critic, especially a theatre critic. Or as one of the characters in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s twin productions of “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound” points out, a critic doesn’t go to the theater for enjoyment, he goes to see what goes wrong.

The two one-act plays – “The Critic,” an 18th century farce by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, and “The Real Inspector Hound,” by Tom Stoppard – may be separated by nearly two centuries, but the playwrights are brothers in insightful satire.

Theater about theater is one of the staples of the stage. It’s easy to make fun of the conflicting egos and insecurities of the curious denizens of the theatrical community. And on the fringes of that community are the envious critics, those obvious forces who, to theater people, seem to exist only to make their lives miserable. A critic can view a theatrical effort that took months to write and rehearse, and with a stroke of a pen, destroy it.

In “The Critic,” Sheridan has fun with everyone connected with the theater: bad playwrights, bad actors and the despicable critics. Stoppard sets “The Real Inspector Hound,” in a too familiar murder mystery setting: a lonely house, in this case, Muldoom Manner, surrounded by desolate marshes, which certainly seems to cover most of England. It is an Agatha Christie setting where the circumstances are that no one can leave, so the murderer must be one of them. Stoppard has included two critics watching the action on the stage who get drawn into the play.

In staging the two one-act plays, Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, said he decided to do the two classical farces because “… critics have had a lot of fun with me over the years, so I think we can have some good natured fun with them.”

The two plays, in a co-production with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, will move with the ensemble cast on to Minnesota in late February at the end of its run in the Lansburgh Theatre.

It is rare to see a grand curtain across the stage in theatrical production anymore, but Kahn’s staging called for a more traditional heavy red curtain opening of “The Critic” onto a colorful scene of an 18th Century drawing room. And later in the act, it opens on a theatrical production of the foppish playwright Mr. Puff (Robert Stanton). Puff has written a comedy, “The Spanish Armada,” and scenic designer James Noone has come up with a stormy ocean scene that is a creation of comedic genius. Not to be overlooked is Murell Horton’s over-the-top, break away costumes, a funny event in “The Critic”.

Noone also created a country house drawing room setting we’ve seen in many British mysteries, lonely houses on the moors. In this scene, however, Noone has two critics sitting in a row of theater seats, overlooking the action, until they too get drawn into the murder.

Kahn is a master of the comedic touch and has an ensemble cast that moves effortlessly into different character roles in each play. In addition to Stanton, are John Ahlin, Naomi Jacobson, Hugh Nees, Sandra Struthers, Charity Jones, Robert Dorfman, John Catron and Brit Herring. It is always fun to see Dorfman, a master of the deadpan comedic presence.

It may be that no one loves a critic, especially a theatrical critic, but it is obvious in “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound,” that there is an unexplainable dependence neither can exist without. They play to each other and the silliness is a part of a good-humored dependency and mutual respect.

“The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound” continue through February 14 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW. Tickets are $44-$118 and available at 202-547-1122 or online here




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