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Review: How well does Stephen Daldry’s landmark ‘An Inspector Calls’ hold up?

Review: How well does Stephen Daldry’s landmark ‘An Inspector Calls’ hold up?
Stephen Daldry's touring production of J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" plays at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Feb. 10. (Mark Douet)

Sometimes a production can wrest a seemingly outdated play from certain retirement. Director Stephen Daldry did just that when he was a young gun storming the London theater scene in the early 1990s.

The play in question was J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls." Daldry's neo-Hitchcockian staging, built around a cockeyed dollhouse of a set by Ian MacNeil, became a transatlantic hit, winning four Tony Awards. A remounting of what is being billed as "the National Theatre of Great Britain's landmark production" has come to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where it runs through Feb. 10.

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If what was once so bracing now seems quaintly nostalgic, the work hasn't lost its popular charm. The theatrical effectiveness of Daldry's "An Inspector Calls," even in a somewhat faded touring copy, is undeniable. Those who loved the show before will like it a good deal again. And newcomers, while perhaps wondering how the directorial stagecraft could have ever been considered edgy, should find enough dramatic enticement to hold their interest.

Priestley's theatrical warhorse has all the elements of an engrossing whodunit. In the middle of a dinner party celebrating the engagement of an industrialist's daughter to the son of his chief manufacturing rival, an inspector arrives with word that a woman in the area has died by swallowing disinfectant.

Christine Kavanagh, left, Jeff Harmer and Lianne Harvey in "An Inspector Calls."
Christine Kavanagh, left, Jeff Harmer and Lianne Harvey in "An Inspector Calls." (Mark Douet)

An inquiry is opened into what motivated this desperate act, but the real crime being investigated is unconstrained capitalism. This mysteriously knowing detective sets out to show how each member of the elegant gathering, a port-splashed repast of snobs sealed off in an upper-class bubble, is implicated in the tragedy.

Imagine Agatha Christie crossed with George Bernard Shaw then doused with a touch of surrealism and you'll have some idea of this 1945 play, which premiered in the wake of World War II but is set in 1912, just a couple of years before that other great global conflagration.

Priestley could be forgiven if he was in a didactic frame of mind. The world had been ripped apart and had to be put back together again. Could society at long last learn from its mistakes? (Spoiler alert: Don't count on it.)

"An Inspector Calls" is not subtle. The sensibility is more Edwardian than modernist, but Daldry serves it up with expressionistic élan. Rather than shy away from the moralizing, the production embraces a critique of inequality that never seems to lose any of its pertinence.

The dining room of this large suburban home is no longer the center of the drama. MacNeil miniaturizes the house and places it at an askew angle. As the play unfolds, the action moves outside to a dank landscape of fog and filth. England seems to have caught a bad Dickensian cold.

A street urchin at the start of the show runs onto the stage and, startled by an air-raid siren, wraps himself in the stage curtain. The blitz anachronistically hangs in the air of a production that regularly calls attention to its own theatrical artifice.

There's nothing realistic about the characters, all of whom are presented in this staging with a sharp caricaturist's pen. At first, we eavesdrop on the insufferable dinner conversation, glancing through the windows to peek at the arrogant swells whose lives revolve around getting and spending. Eventually, the house cracks open, exposing its privileged inhabitants to the moral weather.

Arthur Birling (Jeff Harmer), the overbearing patriarch, treats the upcoming marriage of his entitled daughter, Sheila (a vivid Lianne Harvey), to snooty Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), scion of Crofts Limited, as a business merger. Just as this former Lord Mayor brags to his future son-in-law that, barring an unexpected scandal, he will likely be knighted, Inspector Goole (an appealing Liam Brennan wielding a Scottish brogue like a scalpel) arrives, jeopardizing Arthur's hopes for an aristocratic pedigree.

More spectral than ghoulish, Goole unearths each and every person's relationship to the dead young woman, who after being fired by Arthur for demanding fairer wages at the factory, loses her job at a boutique when Sheila complains out of jealous spite about the manners of this attractive clerk. Gerald, aroused to play the hero for a time, toyed with her affections. Eric (Hamish Riddle), Sheila's reliably drunk brother, was drawn to her good looks and desperate vulnerability. Sybil (an arresting Christine Kavanagh), Arthur's peremptory wife who finds impertinence everywhere, fails her in her own chilly way.

As the inquiry proceeds, the music of Stephen Warbeck italicizes the melodramatic suspense. Edna (Diana Payne-Myers), an old servant, silently scurries to clean up the growing mess that Daldry's production physicalizes. Ragtag figures from the neighborhood, looking on from the margins of the stage as Inspector Goole in effect puts this family on trial, hint at a brewing class war.

Who is this otherworldly Goole? That is a question that Arthur and Gerald will try to solve using all the powerful connections at their disposal. But the guilt the inspector exposes isn't so easily concealed again.

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Priestley's point, while as timely today as it was when he wrote the play, is heavy-handed. But Daldry's spry production makes the lesson sting with liveliness.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘An Inspector Calls’

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 10

Tickets: $35-$105

Info: (310) 746-4000 or TheWallis.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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