The Real Thing
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 6, 2009
Terry Schreiber has given us a clear, intelligent, and rewarding revival of Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing, one that showcases the work to full effect and, perhaps more excitingly, spotlights an ensemble of seven fine actors who bring the characters of the play to life unmistakably and utterly convincingly.
There are two interlocking love triangles at the center of The Real Thing. Two of the points on each are Henry, a playwright, and Annie, an actress. The third point on triangle #1 is Charlotte, Henry's wife, also an actress; on triangle #2 it is Max, Annie's husband, an actor (later he'll be superceded in the triangle by another, younger actor, Billy). Annie and Henry's relationship is the anchor for the story and the one true one that endures from the beginning of the play until the end, or at least that's what we assume: the title of the play gives away its theme as well as its modus operandi, for Stoppard explores here what is real in love and relationships and couplings versus what's illusory, or not there; and he also plays with dramatic depictions of love and real life (in scenes from plays by Henry and others) versus "real life" (naturalistic scenes involving Henry, Annie, and their circle—er, triangles). And of course there's the superimposed layer the audience brings, since Henry and Annie are no more real than the characters they write about or play; it is us in the audience who are actually real, and what we take away from the play is "the real thing," right?
This being a Stoppard play, there's even more going on here, providing sociopolitical context; to my mind, this is the most interesting aspect of The Real Thing. Annie is a bit of a political activist and her current cause is a young Scotsman named Brodie who got himself arrested for setting fire to a wreath at the War Cemetery in protest of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Brodie writes a play about his experiences, which Annie wants Henry to revise so that she can perform in it on TV—which he does. The truth that may exist in this play-within-the-play turns out to be as complicated and elusive as any of Henry and Annie's relationships.
Schreiber's realization of the play—on a sleek, lush set by George Allison that belies the indie theater budget at the Studio—is sharp and crystal clear. Though Stoppard is trying to play tricks on us, shifting realities on stage continuously, Schreiber won't let him: we always know when the actors are acting as opposed to when they're behaving, which is a wonderfully subtle distinction.
The characters we get to know are the "real" ones, obviously. Jason Tomarken gives us a vivid and complex Henry, a man whose fundamental paradox is that he's an unromantic romantic. I love that Tomarken's Henry plods around his home/office in his socks and pulls up his trousers when he leaps onto the sofa to make love to Annie; he's such a genuine and unglamorous fellow that the contradictions feel authentic and forgivable. (For to be sure, Henry is loaded with contradictions—he may even be a terrible hypocrite. But he's human.)
Brian Drillinger is fine as Max, managing to be bland in two different ways, first playing a character in Henry's play and then as the underwhelming Max himself. Harmon Walsh's Hollywood good looks serve him well as Billy, a younger actor who ends up playing Brodie in the TV film; Walsh has met the challenge of mastering not only Billy's English accent but also Brodie's Scots accent. (Kudos, while we're on the subject, to dialect coach Page Clements for all-around excellent results in her work with all of the actors.)
Ryan Michael Jones plays the real Brodie in a very brief scene at the end, and Maura McNamara is memorable in a similarly brief turn as Debbie, Charlotte and Henry's daughter.
The leading ladies of The Real Thing are doing excellent work, but I have to say that both are dogged by my main problem with Stoppard's script, which is that it contains more than a hint of misogyny. Annie is sweet but inarticulate and vague, while Charlotte is quick and lively but bitter. Henry is the heroic character here; neither woman has been allocated a personality to much admire, I'm afraid. That said, both Meghan Jones (Annie) and Aimee Jolson (Charlotte) do splendid work with their roles, the one instantly appealing and disarming, the other, as Stoppard describes her in the stage directions, someone you instantly want for a friend.
Contributions by the rest of the design team—Chris Rummel's sound, Paul Hackenmueller's lighting, and Anne Wingate's costumes—serve the piece mightily. This is another in a growing cadre of outstanding productions of contemporary classics at T. Schreiber Studio, and for those in search of the meaty, juicy center of this, one of Stoppard's most celebrated plays, a real treat awaits.