At first glance, Longacre Lea's current double bill seems an odd couple: On the one hand, we have the comedy "The Real Inspector Hound," by the long-lionized intellectual conjurer Tom Stoppard. On the other hand, we have "Energumen," a paranoid satire by Mac Wellman, whose frequently cryptic, language-focused work is known principally to hard-core theater wonks.
But Artistic Director Kathleen Akerley's yoking of these one-acts highlights their common denominators: a reveling in words, an obsession with the slippery business of role-playing, a look-Ma-no-hands relish for sending ideas rocketing about like shrapnel. Unfortunately, the acting and direction don't match the ingenuity of the Stoppard-Wellman pairing itself, so audiences may find sitting through the nearly three-hour production something of a chore.
Of the two pieces, Wellman's receives far more stylish treatment. Set in Washington in the Reagan era, "Energumen" -- the word refers to someone possessed -- follows a deprogrammer's attempt to liberate a young woman from a cult run by a cynical mystic, the "Master of Many Perfections." As the Master's disciples debate philosophical nostrums, amid revelations involving the government and the sinister Intertop Corp., it becomes clear that not everyone is who he purports to be -- and that goes for those ominous figures in Santa Claus costumes, too. Gradually, deprogrammer Sam Nutley finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that reeks of capitalist greed.
With its thriller plot, "Energumen" is one of Wellman's more accessible plays -- compared with, say, his "Hypatia," about a 5th-century Alexandria mathematician, or "Swoop," which consists of monologues by vampires. But it still contains leaps of logic and sentences that resemble deliberately clunky prose poems ("The design logic of pillar of salt organizes so much memory into a block of sooty smoke"). So it's commendable that the Longacre Lea production manages to be relatively suspenseful without losing the enigmatic contours that are quintessential Wellman.
Leaden pacing mars early scenes, but the languor dissipates, especially with a sequence set on a firing range, wittily staged by Akerley as a homage to James Bond. Unfortunately, the performances are undistinguished, though Hugh T. Owen gives Sam a certain roguish vulnerability and Melissa-Leigh Douglass sometimes bristles with ferocity as cult initiate Megan Feather.
The acting and pacing deteriorate distressingly in "Inspector Hound," Stoppard's dizzying send-up of detective stories and theater critics.
Michael Glenn and Jason Stiles muster moments of occasional flair as the self-absorbed reviewers Birdboot and Moon, but at other points they rush their lines, muddying Stoppard's jokes. Douglass displays some incisive comic timing, flouncing across the stage as the pouty Felicity Cunningham, and Carlos Bustamante labors mightily to give Inspector Hound a Scottish accent, but in general the performances lack the sharpness this spoof requires. Moreover, many of the staging choices (an interminable gag involving a phone cord, etc.) give the scenes a breathless fussiness, where understatement would be more effective -- that particularly goes for the point when Moon and Birdboot overplay their astonishment at merging with the whodunit.
In both plays, designer Gail Stewart Beach chips in with appropriate costumes (for "Energumen," 1980s power suits; for "Inspector Hound," garb reminiscent of Agatha Christie). Matthew Soule succeeds particularly with his "Energumen" set: hard surfaces in primary colors that look stark and unforgiving, like the corporate wasteland the script evokes. But the designs are suitably subdued. These are plays in which a word is worth a thousand pictures.
Energumen, by Mac Wellman, and The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Kathleen Akerley; lighting, Andrew Griffin; sound, Kathleen Akerley and Michael Dove. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. At the Callan Theater, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 202-460-2188 or visit www.longacrelea.org.