Critics are like cockroaches. We've been stepped on, screamed at, dismissed as parasites, and told we're ugly by some of the world's most beautiful people. Yet here we are; still at it, after all these years.
The critic's niche in the theatrical ecosystem is the subject of two short plays that are being presented on a single bill — and sharing the same cast — at the Guthrie Theater. The twofer is directed by Michael Kahn of Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where this production premiered in January.
The first of the two plays, a 1779 burlesque by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, has been adapted for contemporary audiences by Jeffrey Hatcher, a local playwright who's a go-to guy for this sort of thing.
The Critic opens in the ornate home of a theater critic named Dangle (John Ahlin). Sheridan and Hatcher make a slew of satirical observations about critics and criticism as the eponymous writer receives a series of visitors ranging from a sycophantic actress (Sandra Struthers) to the aptly named Puff (Robert Stanton), an indiscriminate critic who's written a play of his own.
Dangle allies with his friendly rival Sneer (Robert Dorfman) against the preening Puff: Dangle and Sneer offer to watch a rehearsal and share their candid advice, taking the opportunity to sabotage a scenario that doesn't need much help to fall apart. In Puff's production, John Catron, a great comic actor who's never been funnier, plays an increasingly absurd series of characters in outrageous beards, while the script prompter (Hugh Nees) struggles with malfunctioning pyrotechnics. Figuratively and literally, The Critic goes out with a bang.
Then we fast-forward to the 1960s for Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. It too features a play-within-a-play that's watched by a pair of carping critics. The farcical piece takes a Twilight Zone turn when the critics find that their offstage concerns are mysteriously merging with the plot of the whodunit they're reviewing.
Ahlin, good as Dangle, is even better as the vain Birdboot, who explodes in affected indignation every time he imagines Moon to be implying that he's doing precisely what he's actually doing: abusing his position to bed a series of starlets. The rapport between the two critics, who physically as well as temperamentally resemble Siskel and Ebert, is the heart of this smart show.
In both The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound, critics are portrayed as corrupt, self-absorbed, and pretentious people who every once in a while hit on a genuine insight. We must be good for something. After all, you just read this review, didn't you?
IF YOU GO:
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through March 27; 612-377-2224