Montford Park Players opened its winter season at the Masonic Temple (which MPP director John Russell called “Montford without mosquitoes” during his welcome speech) with two short whodunnits: Agatha Christie‘s The Patient and Tom Stoppard‘s The Real Inspector Hound.
Both plays are quick and fairly light (Hound is a bit more involved; more on that in a minute) and share a nine-member cast. Patient opened with a sparse set: A few chairs, a screen, a box with a red light bulb, but it was almost immediately apparent that the play was all about the character’s lines.
The story unfolded over the course of an agitated conversation in a hospital room: A woman receiving treatment for depression had taken a tumble form a balcony and, though she survived, had been paralyzed and unable to speak. Her family — an adult brother and sister, the patient’s husband and his secretary — all gathered to give evidence to the police inspector and also offer their theories on how the woman had fallen. A dizzy spell and a suicide attempt were among the possibilities.
Quickly, each character presented a mood: Travis Lowe as Mr. Wingfield was red-faced and adamant, Heather Johnson as Emmaline Ross was prim and accusatory, Trinity Smith as Brenda Jackson (the secretary) was snippy and defensive (offering the play’s best line to Emmaline: “It’s women like you who write anonymous letters”), Scott D. Bean as William Ross was clueless and worried. From the play’s start, the chill, flat affect of the nurse portrayed by Lisa Smith was a stark (and necessary) contrast to the emotive personalities of the other actors. Christopher McLoughlin in a bit part (as the technician who creates a machine through which the paralyzed patient can communicate) managed, through body humor, to transform his role into a scene stealer.
While the end result wasn’t exactly a surprise (Christie isn’t known for burying clues in subtext and lets her characters unravel the mystery through dialogue), Patient proved to be entertaining and sharp with good 1940s costumes and crisp, consistent dialects.
Following an intermission, the cast returned with Hound, a completely different take on the mystery genre. The play opened with two characters, Birdboot and Moon, who took seats in the VIP on-stage seating and launch into rambling dialogue about their personal lives, their romantic prospects and the play about to start. It was confusing, and when they re-entered the action later in the show, it seemed distracting — a sort of play-within-a-play. Should you go to the performance, be patient with this seemingly odd artistic choice of the playwright’s devising: All will be revealed.
The story line of Hound was set (in front of Birdboot and Moon) in the living room of a manor house. McLoughlin returned, making the most of his comedic talent in the role of Simon Gascoyne. He was Pink Panther-esque in his movements and facial expressions, delivering his lines with an implied wink.
Jane Hallstrom as Mrs. Drudge the housekeeper was also a show stopper. Surely her part was written to be funny — Mrs. Drudge was artfully useless while managing to accomplish very little in the way of housework — but it was Hallstrom’s touches — the yellow wellies, the shuffling walk, the well-timed delivery of a line that make the role hilarious.
Smith and Baker as two women competing for Gascoyne’s affections were also delightfully over-the-top. Smith’s tennis-playing Felicity had a perfect flailing run. Baker’s haughty bombshell Cynthia Muldoon recalled Toon Town’s Jessica Rabbit.
The mystery in question was whether or not Gascoyne, who appeared at the house with little explanation for his arrival, was indeed the escaped madman who was periodically mentioned on the living room’s radio. (In sussing this out, Jim Slautich portrayed a satisfyingly authoritative and tweed-clad inspector who looked the part but was delightfully clueless.) But, ultimately, that mystery gave way to much larger questions — to even begin to discuss them would give away too much of the play’s ample surprise.
It’s Hound, despite its silly front, that will leave the audience thinking long after the final curtain. (There’s not actually a curtain. But still.) The well-rehearsed and intuited ensemble performance and two like-minded yet completely different plays made for a fun evening with very few misteps.
Cast includes: Jim Slautich, Travis Lowe, Jane Hallstrom, Scott D. Beam, Christopher McLoughlin, Lisa Smith, Trinity Smith, Katie Baker and Heather Johnson. Production staff: Mike Coghlan, director; Kirstin Daniel, assistant director; Dani Winer, stage manager; Victoria Smith, costumer; Laura Lowe, props manager; Forest Fugate, run crew.
The Patient and The Real Inspector Hound double-bill runs through Sunday, Feb. 20. Performances are Thursday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (no matinees). Thursday, Feb. 17 is “pay what we’re worth” night. No reservations, first come, first served, see the show then pay what you think it’s worth. All other performances are $12/$10/$6 advanced and $15/$12/$8 doors. On-stage VIP seating is $25 and includes a beverage. 254-5146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.