Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound concerns theatre critics who wind up personally involved in the thriller they're reviewing, which puts me in the position of being a theatre critic critiquing a play about theatre critics critiquing a play. Stoppard must love this.

Actually, a lot of us do. And in the production of Hound currently playing (through May 7) at Augustana College - alongside Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy - director Cori Veverka has done justice to Stoppard's esoterically hilarious one-act, and then some. She orchestrates divinely funny bits of business, especially in the opening scenes; aided by topnotch, subtle sound design, Veverka parodies melodrama spectacularly. (Characters exit the stage with insinuating, gut-busting stares of contempt.) And - as Veverka also designed the evening's beautiful, comically functional set - her decision to position the critics (Kevin Wender and Nick Padiak) on a second-floor tier above the unfolding thriller is inspired; it smartly gives the audience two points of comedic focus, doubling the laughs.

In theory.

Wender and Padiak are both fine, yet through no fault of theirs, I barely paid attention to their above-ground storyline - the performers enacting Hound's play-within-a-play are giving such remarkably clever, joyful performances that even if they're not meaning to, they're stealing the show.

David Cocks' comic portrayals this season - he also appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miser - have been sensational; they reveal depth and invention, and are never less than terrifically funny. (He also has a rich, emotive stage voice; I hope he lends it to Shakespeare and O'Neill one day soon.) In Hound, Cocks is doing something rather amazing: With supreme wit, he's underplaying overplaying, and to the production's great fortune, he's not the only one who is.

Christine Barnes gives a smart, yet deliriously batty, performance, Susanne Kepley is a put-upon riot, and Charlie Zamastil's insidious deadpan is marvelous; his character's wheelchair-bound shiftiness is a devastatingly funny parody of Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life. As for Kyle Roggenbuck, who plays a withering, exposition-happy housekeeper, her unflappable sweetness and physical confidence in the role are both hysterical and inspiring; this is the student's first performance in a main-stage production at Augustana, and I hope not the last.

The Real Inspector Hound would be more than enough entertainment for a night, but the production is followed by Black Comedy, which is enjoyable, light-hearted Shaffer, even though it doesn't quite provide the highs of Hound. Shaffer's conceit sees the stage lights on while his characters are in the dark, fumbling through all manner of comic miscommunications, and while, as in Hound, there's plenty on-stage to look at, some performers are better at this wandering-blind shtick than others. (A rarely-vocalized complaint: A few actors are too focused on those they're communicating with.) Director Mark Hurty's staging is often really sharp - particularly when furniture begins disappearing - yet much of the physical comedy is missed, as the audience's eyes are, for much of the show's length, firmly fixed on Nick Padiak and Susanne Kepley.

Both performers top their contributions to Hound with their masterful Black Comedy efforts. (Five of the evening's 12 performers are double-cast.) Padiak gives a dexterous, wildly inventive performance - his self-directed double-takes, when his character can't believe the mess he's in, are miniature perfection - and Kepley's doddering, primly secretive lush is laugh-out-loud funny; even in a blackout, in an unfamiliar apartment, she beelines for the booze. Several Black Comedy performers - among them, again, Christine Barnes and Charlie Zamastil - do admirable work here, but Padiak and Kepley oftentimes depart the safe haven of stage comedy for the realm of inspired lunacy, and for an audience, that's a much more entertaining place to be.

For tickets, call (309) 794-7236.

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