Reviewed by Will Stackman
Billed as a passionate modern classic, Tom Stoppard's oblique 1982 meditation on his first marriage was last seen around here in the intimate quarters of the New Rep's old home three seasons ago. The Huntington Theatre Company's current revival on their broad proscenium concentrates on the romantic conundrum central to this script in their season opener. Director Evan Yionoulis, who got through "39 Views" last season for HTC, does a better job this time of balancing the several layers of intellectual discourse about truth and reality which accompany the trials of the playwright at the center of "The Real Thing" with its romantic plot. Rufus Collins recently seen in Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow" at MTC--as Orson--creates a mutlilayered Henry, perhaps the closest Stoppard has come to putting himself in one of his plays. The closest Henry's gotten to "the real thing" is embodied in Annie, played by a luminous Kate Nowlin, a Yale MFA grad and rep actress. The rest of the cast, which includes other Yalies and recent grads from other prestigious programs, is on par with these two, but their characters are more or less pawns in the complex argument swirling around Henry and Annie. There's also a plot which touches on various aspects of the theatre and draws upon Strindberg's "Miss Julie" and Ford's Jacobean blood fest " Its a Pity She's a Whore," not to mention British anti-missile politics from the 1980's when the play was first produced. Stoppard, in this work which references other media he'd worked in, clearly understands how to make a drama from a mixture of potent sources. The HTC doesn't do so well mixing styles in this production.
Among the subjects the playwright includes is playwrighting itself, for "The Real Thing" starts out with a rather serious bit of professional class domestic drama, which turns out to be a scene from Henry's current unsuccessful West End play, "House of Cards", concerning suspected adultery. The first problem a director faces in interpreting this script is how soon the audience should realize they are watching a play with a play. In this production the full realization doesn't come until next scene when Meg Gibson, who was just seen playing the suspect wife wanders in casual dress as Charlotte, Henry's wife. Their quiet Sunday morning slopping about the house is disrupted when Matthew Boston as their friend Max, the actor who played the suspicious husband, arrives somewhat unexpectedly followed by his wife Annie. Then real life becomes much more interesting than Henry's failing play as it becomes apparent that Henry and Annie are having an affair.
Playing Stoppard is a challenge for American actors trained to delve into their psyches to find a basis for their roles. Even in a seemingly realistic script like "The Real Thing" this author takes a much more classic or perhaps Shavian approach. His characters could almost be based on dominant motivations rather than psychological constructs. This attitude is clearest in Henry who not coincidentally hates psychology. Fortunately, this versatile cast uses their stage experience both modern and classical as well as film and television, to create interesting if somewhat opaque characterizations. Its never quite clear why they do what they do, but we can believe that they are in fact complicated enough human beings to have their reasons. Billy, the young actor who seduces Annie while they're playing "'Its a Pity...", played by William Thompson, seems to confuse his role as the heroine's incestuous brother with the natural attraction he feels towards a beautiful stage partner. Which is of course another metaphorical arena in this work. Five of the seven characters are theatre people, each of whom has difficulty at times separating their ability to simulate reality from what's really happening around them
Even Pvt. Brodie, played by Adam Saunders, a supposed missile protestor who Annie has been championing, even to the point of getting Henry to adapt this lower-class Scot's lumpen autobiographical play into a TV drama, is a posturing prole. His one scene at the end of the play has a touch of Pinterian farce, as the boorish truth about his famous protest and why he's actually been let out of jail, provokes a low comedy response from Annie. Also Henry's teenage daughter by his first marriage is no fount of youthful insight as she prepares to go on the road with her lover, a carnival musician. But Debbie, played by Pepper Binkley, is perhaps the most honest person in the play. The affection she feels for her frustrating father may be the real thing.
The least successful part of this production is Kris Stone's Futurist set, probably meant to suggest the universality of this play very definitely set in the 1980's. It's actually merely another display of a style coming to be associated with the Yale School of Drama. Very architectural, very spacious, and not very helpful given the acoustics in the B.U. Theatre. But attractive enough in a blatant way. Katherine Roth's costumes are stylish, if a bit precious at times. The sound design, which involves numerous musical cues using Motown and British Pop, signifying Henry's decidedly low musical taste, with a few classical bits to drive the point home, does Daniel Baker credit. And Yale's Stephen Strawbridge certainly knows how to light this sort of set. But all this technical achievement doesn't add that much to the play, which might have been better served by more wagoned units to shift the furniture which must be wrestled about in the dark by a large crew.
With "Arcadia" having a successful run oudoors this summer at the Publick, and two more mountings indoors this season, perhaps its time Boston theatre got more of Sir Tom's oeuvre to contemplate. Stoppard's stature has risen to the level where his plays aren;t just done, they require interpretation. The HTC has come closer to a house of cards than the real thing, but the language of the play and first-class performances make this show worth seeing