AISLE SAY Twin Cities


Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Joe Dowling
Staring Lee Mark Nelson, Sally Wingert,
Jay Goede, Kathryn Meisle
Guthrie Theater
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Reviewed by Ellen Dworsky and Roxanne Sadovsky

On the way back from the Guthrie Rox and I were talking about how over the years we have matured as critics -- focusing less on ourselves and more on the play. I only wish we could insert our lives into The Real Thing because this review might be a more interesting to read -- or not. We've seen good plays, great plays, bad plays, and frustrating plays at the Guthrie but I don't think we've ever seen one this boring.

Frankly, I was so bored that I spent most of my time either gnashing my teeth over the fake British accents or trying to figure out when in God's name this play was supposed to be taking place. The first scene opens with Max (Lee Mark Nelson) and Charlotte (Sally Wingert) in a living room that could have been from anytime past 1980, likewise, their clothing. They carried on a long conversation about the wife's supposed infidelity, which include a lot of talk about LCD watches. Ho hum.

The next scene opens with Charlotte and Henry (Jay Goede). Now what is Charlotte doing there? Isn't she married to Max from the first scene? It took me about 10 minutes to figure out that what we had was a play within a play. First it was boring, then confusing, and by then I was totally annoyed. So I started seriously trying to figure out when the play-or plays-were taking place. Granted, if I had read the synopsis (which I have yet to do), I'm sure my questions would have been answered. But a play, movie, piece of writing should stand on its own -- without the need for a guide book to figure out what's going on, where, and when. Generally.

I have now spent over two hours fact checking dates of songs, movies, references, objects in the play to try to narrow down when the play takes place.

LCD watches, talked about in the first scene, were on the market as early as 1972.
The Culture Club's song "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" came out in 1982.
The movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" came out in 1969.
The song "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers was at the top of the charts in 1964.
The Everly Brother's "Bye Bye Love came out in 1957.
"Oh Carol" by Neil Sedaka came out in 1959.
Then there's the matter of the 1970s looking radio and electric typewriter.

Rox noticed that one of the men was wearing a Member's Only jacket that she identified as 1980s. I tried to figure out when Member's Only first appeared on the scene and determined it had to be before the internet because nobody would choose a name that was so unsearchable that it would bring up thousands of hits even if you kept refining your search. I never did figure it out.

Or the fact that Henry is going to be on the radio show Desert Island Discs. I surfed quite awhile looking at the history of records, cassettes, and CDs (I skipped 8-track tapes because they were just a blip on the radar) trying to figure out the date of this play.

Records first appeared in the 1870s and LPs in the vinyl format were first sold in 1948.
Cassettes, in their current form appeared in 1964, and were popular from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
CDs, invented in 1982, have been popular from the late 1980s. In the late '80s CD sales surpassed LP sales, leaving CDs and cassettes as the two main consumer formats.
Although there are diehard vinyl fans, I abandoned my record player for cassettes in the early 1980s.

Due to the Members Only Jacket and the Culture Club song, this has to take place in 1982 or later. But then why are these people constantly referring to much earlier references that would lead one to believe the play is set earlier? I kept looking at their clothes and the furniture and all were so nondescript, I did think 1980s (what a bland decade that was). But the earlier references kept throwing me off.

Maybe Tom Stoppard had some reason for not grounding us in time, but I can't think what it was.

Well, Rox. I obsessed over the timeline quite a bit, didn't I? But I guess that's what happens if there's nothing else of interest happening on stage.

Rox: Okay, Elle. Points well taken, but a few things to consider: this play supposedly takes place in England, right? So that automatically means it's going to be a bit bass-akwards when it comes to consistency in cultural standards. In fact, all this talk reminds me of the time I was on kibbutz in 1994 and this very young, hip group of South African, twenty-something girls were rocking out to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as though it was the absolute coolest thing they had ever heard. Now, admittedly, I too, rocked out to the song when I was 12, in 1982. Get it?

Elle: Not really. How can they be bass-akwards and totally hip at the same time?

Rox: Quit splitting hairs, Elle. Anyway, as you feared would happen, there I go talking about myself, but what can you do? It was a boring play, though I am not entirely sure what made it so boring, especially considering it was supposedly focused on my favorite topic: relationships. Not only that, but it was billed as a comedy, which made me think it would be funny, which it wasn't. Either I'm getting old and jaded and my restless leg syndrome is getting really bad, or that was just a remarkably boring play. I can only assume it was boring because it didn't plunge very deeply into any given storyline, choosing instead to meander from event to event, all in the larger context of the relationships between the various characters. I was intrigued during the first act when I thought we were moving in the direction of seeing Max's grief process since his wife Annie (Kathryn Meisle) left him for Henry, and all that one must do to overcome heartbreak, but alas, it was a comedy, though, again, not very funny.

I don't have a heck of a lot to add. Sure, I could talk about how everything so far this year at the Guthrie feels way overproduced, including the venue itself, including The Real Thing, whose staging and rapid set changes were impressive, but couldn't compensate for the fact that the show was dull as dishwater. In all fairness, it could be that we saw the show right after seeing like 22 Fringe shows, which made us a little burnt out on theatre; perhaps we simply weren't prepared to be walking into something so shiny and rehearsed that totally screams "theatre", after all that Fringe, which is so frickin' organic and raw. Who knows? One thing I will say is that I love that new proscenium stage, perhaps even more than the beloved thrust. It was so brand new (even smelled new) and deep, cherry red that it was almost edible! It really put me in the mood for a great movie, as that room would surely make for a great movie theatre!

Elle: Theatre? It sort of reminded me of the windows in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, where all the prostitutes stand in the window and try to lure the customers in.

Rox: What the hell were you doing in the Red Light district?

Elle: That was the summer after I lived in Italy and I traveled all over Europe. You have to see the Red Light District when you're there, Rox. Sort of like you have to go see the house where Anne Frank hid. Anyway, I was staying at the Christian Youth Hostel, so I figured it was ok.

Rox: The Christian Youth Hostel? What kind of Jew are you?

Elle: Cut me some slack, it was in 1989 and I was doing Europe on 10 bucks a day including lodging. I didn't have a lot of choices-or food. I was 103 pounds by the end of that trip. Yes, those were the days...thin, svelte. Now I'm zaftig...

Rox: You're a little off topic here, Elle.

Elle: Yeah. So. The Guthrie. My first time there. It was like a combination of Disneyland, the airport, and Sci Fi World. That escalator was the longest I've ever seen.

Rox: The escalator is like Space Mountain.

Elle: And upstairs was like the boarding area of an airport, complete with the digital sign that announces your flight-except the sign announced the play. So back to the play. Yep. I think we're done talking about the play. Hopefully the next one will be better. And maybe if I take a Valium or something before going there, the place won't freak me out so much. I miss the old Guthrie. It was so much homier.

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