Murder, Third Row Center

A murder has been committed at Muldoon Manor, a remote, fog-shrouded country home, and the body lies in plain sight. Too bad the house guests, and the critics for that matter, are too self-absorbed to notice. The Performers Access Studio's spot-on production of Tom Stoppard's 1968 witty whodunit, The Real Inspector Hound, is a play-within-a-play that pokes fun at the murder mystery form while exposing the critics who decide "yea" or "nay" before the first act is done.

First, the play: Stoppard has created a telltale mystery that is comically aware of itself, complete with the attractive widow, Cynthia Muldoon; her busybody maid, Mrs. Drudge; the unannounced stranger, Simon; and the inept but dashing Inspector Hound.

Early on, when Simon remarks, "I took the shortcut over the cliffs and followed one of the old smuggler's paths through the treacherous swamps that surround this strangely inaccessible house," we realize that Stoppard is revealing how easily recognizable and implausible mystery-genre conventions are. The performers must remain aware of the molds from which they've been cast, exaggerating their horror and shock, their passion and anger in a constant send-up of well-worn tropes. As Felicity, Mary Theresa Archibold, for instance, accents every exit with a fluttering step and a sudden flick of her curly black hair that perfectly sums up her character's jilted pout.

Downstage left, in a short row of chairs identical to those in the audience, sit Birdboot and Moon, two critics who have been dispatched to review the murder mystery. A big name with an equally big ego, Birdboot is a career-making critic with a conspicuously absent wife and an eye for fresh young actresses, while Moon is a striving second-stringer who lives in the shadows of his superior, Higgs. They both seem to be watching the play, but actually spend a good deal of time musing about their own problems.

As the action in the first scene gets under way, Birdboot proclaims that the killer is not Simon, the unexpected guest, but Magnus, the wheelchair-bound brother-in-law of the lady of the house, who "ten years ago went out for a walk on the cliffs and was never seen again." Having made up his mind about the killer's identity and the review he will give the show, the weathered critic can turn his attention to the young starlets who grace the stage. And Moon, hampered by his own sense of inferiority

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