At the start of “The Critic,” a self-regarding theater reviewer — is there any other kind? — scans the morning papers and disgustedly tosses them all away. They’re filled, it seems, with the most irrelevant trivia, about wars and national politics and other dreary minutiae, the consequence of which is that all the news that really matters has been left on the editing room floor.
That news would concern the most urgent topic ever conceived by humankind. Why, yes — the theater. How did you know?
Theater people have long engaged in making fun of their own folkways, a penchant on display in works through the ages, including Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play.” The timelessness of the pastime is merrily reinforced in the one-act satires that Shakespeare Theatre Company has paired under Michael Kahn’s frisky direction: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 comedy “The Critic” and Tom Stoppard’s 1968 confection “The Real Inspector Hound.”
The pieces have been done together before, their linkage not only anchored in a certain perverse pleasure at skewering the shopworn conventions of drama, but also at taking (mostly) good-natured potshots at the (onetime) ink-stained wretches who sit on the aisle, rendering flawless verdicts on the performances they absolutely never sleep through. Via the characters of Dangle, Sneer and Puff in “The Critic,” and Moon and Birdboot in “Inspector Hound,” Sheridan and Stoppard turn the tables on the vanity, presumptuousness and solipsism of the criticizing business, in ways gleefully entertaining — and often right on the mark.
Even those with a low tolerance for evenings obsessed with theater lore might achieve a happy state at this Lansburgh Theatre double bill, courtesy of the satirically adroit cadre of actors Kahn has assembled, including the ripely clownish trio of Robert Stanton, John Ahlin and Robert Dorfman as the various sitters-in-judgment. (The plays may offer jaundiced views, but the jibes are not slung without a certain affection.) The cast is rounded out expertly by Hugh Nees, Naomi Jacobson, Sandra Struthers, Charity Jones and John Catron, portraying the deeply unfortunate actors trapped in two godawful plays-within-plays.
Stoppard’s “Inspector Hound,” a sendup wandering into the surreal of the sort of British detective mystery epitomized by Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” is pretty much a perfect bit of craftsmanship. Sheridan’s “The Critic,” which takes down the pretensions of Stanton’s deluded, blue-wigged Mr. Puff — sometime scribe of fraudulent newspaper items and author of the ghastly epic “The Spanish Armada” — is another story. The original script, filled with arcane references and wildly purple witticisms, would feel a slog for modern audiences.
Wisely, Kahn commissioned playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to do some significant tweaking, particularly in “The Critic’s” second half, when Ahlin’s Mr. Dangle and Dorfman’s Mr. Sneer accompany Mr. Puff to the Drury Lane Theater in London’s West End, where he’s rehearsing his demented “Armada.” Among Hatcher’s clever rewrites is to have Dangle and Sneer mischievously suggest that Sheridan is watching from the back of the house, a device that helps develop the idea that every theater critic is a frustrated playwright, starving for approbation: The revelation sends Mr. Puff — in Stanton’s immaculately spoken, skillfully baroque portrayal — into a swoon of self-serving ecstasy and anxiety.
The director also defers here for inspiration to Murell Horton, his go-to costume designer for over-the-top raiment, reflecting a world where clothes make the moron. The well-placed deference extends also to set designer James Noone, who concocts a seagoing battle scene for “The Spanish Armada” that turns into an amusingly, er, immersive experience.
Stoppard’s conceit takes the critics’ involvement in their work to Pirandellian lengths. Moon (Stanton) and Birdboot (an especially funny Ahlin, bugging out his eyes in Zero Mostel fashion) are sitting through a flat-footed, mid-20th-century mystery set in one of those old English houses filled with rickety staircases and even flimsier characters.
A phone rings, and into it Jacobson’s splendid Mrs. Drudge, the housekeeper, growls: “Hello. The drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence, one morning in early spring.”
The critics, though, are too wrapped up in their own dramas to listen closely. Moon, the second-string critic at some newspaper or other, broods over his eternal also-ran status, while Birdboot obsesses over the ambitious young actress who dined with him the night before. Soon enough, the dramatic lines will blur ingeniously, as their personal preoccupations draw them inexorably into the ominous goings-on at Muldoon manor.
The cast members prove delightfully deft at these parodistic assignments, a facility that assists greatly in the serious work being carried on here, of tickling the critic in everyone.
The Critic, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, and The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, James Noone; costumes, Murell Horton; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Christopher Baine; fight direction, Paul Dennhardt; composer, Adam Wernick; period movement, Frank Ventura; voice and text, Ellen O’Brien; dramaturg, Drew Lichtenberg. With Brit Herring. About 2 hours and 30 minutes. Tickets: $20-$108. Through Feb. 14 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-112 or go online at shakespearetheatre.org.