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A CurtainUp Review
The Real Thing
Stoppard lays out a puzzle for the audience's consideration. It's not always easy to see where the imaginary artifice ends and the real artifice starts. Scenes of staged bits from two plays and a TV show bump up against entanglements in the character's lives in the real play. There are two or three marriages and a few affairs, more if you include those in the plays within the play.
When we're not laughing at the funny stuff on stage or admiring the writing that so refreshingly engages the intellect, we might recognize matters of the heart — truth, lies, fidelity and infidelity— that resonate in our own relationships. In the ladies room during intermission a woman commented, "This is intense," and others agreed.
I can't imagine a better or more appealing cast for this show. Kevin Collins's Henry is a smart and vulnerable writer with the demeanor of Colin Firth-not just the lovable romcom Firth, but the King's Speech Firth too. It's a different take on this character. The women, strong and secure in complicated roles, are Karen Peakes, Suzy Jane Hunt, and Hannah Gold (as Charlotte, Annie and Debbie respectively). Dan Hodge and Brian Ratcliffe neatly straddle their roles, and Harry Smith provides an accent in both senses of the word.
To Harry, fidelity means giving of ourselves to each other through private knowledge. But he wonders, "What selves? What's left that hasn't been dealt out like a deck of cards?" Harry's daughter, Debbie, sees things differently: "Most people think not having it off is fidelity. They think all relationships hinge in the middle."
An astonishingly talented writer, Stoppard takes the opportunity to speak through his characters about issues with writing. Henry, exposed to a poorly done and unschooled script, delivers a tidy little treatise on words and writing. Annie takes a different view as she wonders if fine words, skillfully manipulated, can really trump heartfelt words that may be clumsily expressed. "Doesn't the purpose of it count for something?" But things may not be what they seem, and writing that appears to be deeply political may be motivated by something else entirely.
The production uses downstage as an official performance area. Much of the rest of the vast stage space in the back, visible and utilized for the performance, is left to appear more or less undecorated. It looks real, a look that basically works while further complicating the question of what's the real thing. All the scenes plus all that space use keeps the nimble stage crew busy. The music, intrinsic to the play, is a compendium of great blasts from the past, with Dell Shannon, The Crystals, Herman's Hermits, The Righteous Brothers, and more - good old songs you may not have heard in awhile.
Disclosure: I love Stoppard's work. I imagine even his grocery lists are clever, and if I got ahold of one, I'd try to get it performed at a local theater. Preferably the Wilma.
This review is a very brief look at the Wilma's production and a quick scan across the surface of a play that has been reviewed and analyzed to death for over thirty years*. If you like Stoppard, but haven't seen The Real Thing, you owe it to yourself to do so. The Wilma would be the place to go. Well known for its special long-term relationship with Tom Stoppard, the Wilma's current lobby display features his ten works they've produced, beginning with Travesties in 1994. Then in 1996 Arcadia was the first play to run in this new theater. The other plays have been: On The Razzle, The Invention of Love, The Real Inspector Hound, Indian Ink, Night and Day, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (which was performed in the Kimmel Center in concert with Andre Previn and The Philadelphia Orchestra), Rock 'n' Roll, and now The Real Thing. Coming next year, their 11th play will be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
*Note: The Real Thing premiered in London in 1982. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1984. It won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play and the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2000. For Curtainup's backgrounder on Tom Stoppard with quotations from his work and links to other reviews of this play go here.