Audiences beware: the fourth wall can’t protect you. At least, that seems to be the message behind the T. Schreiber Studio’s charming double billing of works by Christopher Durang and Tom Stoppard. As both contain a play-within-a-play, they thrust spectator characters into the limelight. In Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, an accountant takes a wrong turn and finds himself being forced to replace an injured Edwin Booth in a mysterious production. In Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, two theater critics wind up participating in the show they’ve come to review. Durang’s Nightmare posits what would happen if a man, sans rehearsals (and, in this case, knowledge of his name or prior acting experience), was unexpectedly thrown onstage. The concept is amusing enough and produces a lot of great squirm humor. While you empathize with George Spelvin, the unfortunate and sudden actor, the sheer awkwardness of both the situation and how he handles it are hilarious. As Spelvin, Michael Black is an endearingly pathetic chump. He’s best when Spelvin actually tries to act and gets excited about his temporary triumphs. In these little victories (between many, many disasters), Black grins like a five-year-old who just won the class spelling bee. His surge of ridiculous confidence comes in the form of adding special accents or flourishes to his performance. As the audience knows a fall is inevitable, the fleeting second of success is precious.
The problem with the show is that the time allotted to the plot greatly exceeds the depth of the joke. He’s not supposed to be there, he’s uncomfortable, and he’s panicking. We get it. There’s really no reason to make this go on for longer than 10-15 minutes, but Durang seems to have really wanted to make his poor character suffer. We see a mash-up of words and scenes from Shakespeare, Noel Coward, and Samuel Beckett. The ensuing collage and butchering of assorted lines is entertaining, but could be curtailed. For an actor, perhaps watching this go on and on is cathartic. For an audience member, it’s boring.
In Stoppard’s play, two theater critics have come to watch a murder mystery, but are completely preoccupied with their own concerns. Moon (Julian Elfer), young and overly insecure, is distracted by office politics, while Birdboot (Rick Forstmann), old and overly excitable, is distracted by his libido.
Both actors make their characters equal parts blowhard and fool. Elfer gives Moon just the right amount of bumbling neuroticism as he obsesses over his status as a second-string critic and consistently tries to prove himself through pretentious analysis. As Birdboot, Forstmann nimbly shifts between self-righteous husband and skirt-chaser. Although he talks through the show, the experienced critic is still a stickler for the details: he whips out his binoculars during an onstage kiss to determine whether or not “her mouth is open.”
Modeled in the Agatha Christie mold, the show they’ve come to critique pans out like a comically campy live-action Clue. The satirical touches aren’t exactly original, but they hit the mark thanks to performances completely invested in the farce and jokes (and plot points) that are repeated so often they reach their comical apex the moment they should start to annoy you (this holds true particularly for a maid with a bulging-eye problem).
While both plays’ antics elicit chuckles, there is nothing exceptional, or particularly exciting, about them. With very safe pacing and style, the entire production seems to suffer from a strict dedication to tradition. Perhaps it is the firm footing provided by such experienced playwrights that convinces the director and actors to stay so close to the beaten path. Perhaps it is the fact that tradition can be beautiful (one look at George Allison’s old-school proscenium archway, velvet boxes, and chandeliers would say so). But without a stamp of originality, this two-play production fails to be distinct or memorable. Fourth wall shattering? Yes. Earth shattering? Certainly not.