April 28, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
Spoofing convention

‘The Real Inspector Hound’
by Tom Stoppard
Through May 29
8 p.m. Thursday-Friday
5 and 8 pm. Saturday
3 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Metro Stage
1201 N. Royal Street
Alexandria, VA
Tickets $45-$50
(students $25)
at 800-494-8497
or visit boxofficetickets.com

‘[title of show]’
music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen
book by Hunter Bell
Through May 14
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
3 p.m. Sunday
The Little Theatre of Alexandria
600 Wolfe Street
Alexandria, VA
Tickets $19-$22
at box office
or 703-683-0496
or visit thelittletheatre.com

From left, Sharon Grant (Heidi), Anne Marie Pinto (Susan), Josh Goldman (Hunter), Scott Harrison (Jeff), and Francine Krasowska (Pianist) in ‘Title of Show.’ (Photo by Shane Canfield; courtesy of Little Theatre of Alexandria)

A mysterious stranger, a murderer on the loose, bodies piling up at a remote manor house, the suspicion that one of the weekend guests must surely be the killer, the entrance of the savvy detective — Agatha Christie conventions ripe for the parody playwright Tom Stoppard brings to them in “The Real Inspector Hound.”

The early ‘60s-era play is on the boards now at Metro Stage in Old Town Alexandria through May 29. It’s a true giggle and so skillfully helmed by veteran director John Vreeke that it will keep you tingling on the edge of your seat in the intimate setting of Metro Stage, which has brought together three of the stars of an earlier play, “Heroes,” translated from the French original by Stoppard and staged there several years ago, where they won that year’s Helen Hayes Award for outstanding ensemble in a resident production.

Vreeke, a four-time best director Helen Hayes Awards nominee, directed that play also, which starred the same trio that, reunited here, glitters with bright wit as the conveyors of Stoppard’s ideas about police procedurals in murder mysteries, in “The Real Inspector Hound,” where nothing that is apparent is real and even the fourth wall of the stage, absent as the play opens, entirely dissolves half way through when all boundaries between actors and audience are broken into pieces.

In this play we immediately meet two theater critics sitting in other seats but facing us: Moon (Ralph Cosham) and Birdboot (Michael Tolaydo), the former afflicted with a huge inferiority complex as the second-string reviewer from his paper, and the latter a philanderer cheating on his wife with every ingenue he can bed after he gives her a swooning review.

Another actor is already on stage, but he is already dead, the corpse that, of course, never speaks but whose constant presence is somehow ignored by the actors in the play the two critics have come to review, a cast that includes the mysterious Major Magnus Muldoon — the crippled half-brother of the Lady of the Manor, glamorous vixen, Lady Cynthia Muldoon ((Emily Townley) — played by the third of the “Heroes” trio (John Dow).

Before long there are more corpses than just one on stage and Moon and Birdboot have gotten — literally, and fatally — into the act.

This same device of a play-within-a-play is also on stage across town in Old Town Alexandria at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, in the clever spoof of how to “put on a show.”

It’s about two would-be hit-makers who are actually “nobodies in New York” trying to write a musical, and the result is their musical about two guys trying to write a musical. Their 2006 one-act musical comedy, a hit Off-Broadway, Obie-winning there — “[title of show]” — moved briefly to Broadway in 2008 and has also spawned a national tour now under way and recent productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington and now at Little Theatre, a community theater with a professional skill set.

It’s called “[title of show]” because the two — real-life Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) — couldn’t think of another title when they were submitting a script with a few songs to win success in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004. Bowen and Bell, both gay, also played themselves in the show in its several incarnations including in the national tour that is set to close in July in California and then move to London’s West End later this year.

On stage at Little Theatre, there are only four characters: Bowen (here played ably by Scott Harrison, lawyer by day) and Bell (Josh Goldman, a graduate last year of the College of William and Mary, where for three years he performed with the college’s improv theatre team), and also their two real-life (at the time) best friends (not beards or girlfriends), Heidi (Sharon Grant) and Susan (Anne Marie Pinto).

All four perform superbly with great voices and comic sensibilities brought to a perfect storm of their four distinctive humors by director Michael Kharfen, first time at the helm of a Little Theatre play but previously seen there on stage in “Sleuth.”

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