These back-to-back one-acts, plays-within-a-play by Christopher Durang and Tom Stoppard, respectively, are performed in a black box theater framed with rich wood and filled with the kind of crooning jazz that transports a person directly to Noel Coward’s drawing room, c. 1925. Which is convenient, because the audience first meets accountant George Spelvin (a charming Michael Black) as he’s ad-libbing his way through a performance of Coward’s Private Lives, for which he hasn’t had a single rehearsal. Dressed like a cross between Drew Carey and Richard III (his next unforeseen performance is in Hamlet) George, fumbling, infuriates his castmates (including the very funny Nan Wray, in several roles), who nevertheless create fantastic absurdist farce from Coward, Shakespeare and even A Man For All Seasons. George doesn’t know why he’s onstage, and in a panic spouts everything from Lady Macbeth’s hallucinatory lines to the Act of Contrition he learned at Catholic school. Here Durang covers familiar ground (Catholic guilt, existential angst) with his usual facility and pitch-black humor, and the strong ensemble cast keeps up with his breakneck comic pace.
The delicious nightmare continues in the second play. A lifeless body remains on the oriental rug throughout Stoppard’s Agatha Christie-style mystery, which is observed by two critics: embittered second-stringer Moon (Julian Elfer) and caddish clown Birdboot (Rick Forstmann). Wray shines again as Mrs. Drudge, the housemaid whose job seems to be to deliver long-winded explanations of the action for the benefit of the audience. Elfer is immediately captivating as spiteful Moon and grows more so as his life becomes increasingly entangled with the characters in the play he’s watching. The ending flies at you from nowhere — it’s the most satisfying kind of mystery. The Actor’s Nightmare and The Real Inspector Hound come together in this skillfully transformed space to create a deftly-executed escapist’s thrill ride and top-tier off-Broadway fare.