In the opening scene of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, playing at the Studio Theatre until June 30, the audience is given an uncomfortable glimpse into the lives of a London-based couple who are about to break apart when a glib husband accuses his wife of adultery. The exchange is powerful and heartbreaking — and as we find out minutes later, not even real. It is in fact a scene out of a play that foreshadows the events set to happen outside the "play in a play," present in the construct of this piece.
The ruse on the audience is discovered in the next scene when the wife in question, Charlotte, is sitting with the man we expect is her lover, Henry. When the "husband" comes to the door and the tension builds, a line about "last night's performance" starts to put everything in focus. Henry is really Charlotte's husband and also the writer of the play. Max is just an actor and friend, who has a wife of his own in Annie. When the four meet up for a conversation over some veggies and dip, all thoughts of adultery have vanished.
Or so we think. Real infidelities come to light and the play follows the aftermath of what happens to the couples, with Henry's play always lingering in the background.
As Henry, Teagle F. Bougere captures all the wit of a playwright who seems a bit Romeo-esque with regards to falling in love. With a simplistic music taste (he likes the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron"), yet mastery with words, the character is likable even when talking down to his wife or lover. Bougere turns what could be a stereotypical cheater husband into someone worth investing in.
Annie Purcell is both playful and seductive as Annie, and it is her sexuality that seems to be the biggest draw to Henry's affection. The scenes between Bougere and Purcell are laced with lust and laughter, but their compatibility seems limited. It is a telling sign when Annie asks Henry, "You won't let it wear away what you feel about me?"
An interesting possible blip in their relationship comes from the character of Brodie, a prisoner who started a fire in a war memorial and punched a policeman who Annie tries desperately to help. Tom Getman has some fun moments as the prize lout, especially when it's revealed that he has written a play and wants Henry's help.
Unhappiness seems to be the mantra for Charlotte, whether in the play or her real life, and Caroline Bootle Pendergast makes you feel for both even when you think Charlotte is the one who was the betrayer. Pendergast delivers a vulnerability and cynicism that is familiar to anyone who has been scorned. As Max, Dan Domingues is best as the "husband" in the play, and does his best work opposite Pendergast. It's this couple's problems, real or not, which have the greatest impact.
Stoppard has gone so far as to call his play "not autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something," and Henry is clearly his voice. Director David Muse is able to convey the wit and heart of Stoppard's words. He utilizes the intimate theater-in-the-round Milton stage flawlessly, relying on music via a turntable and radio as a way to assist with scene changes and create a sense of a world in flux. Set designer Jim Noone works with a limited space, but manages to keep it from stifling the big story going on.
Like all relationships, real issues about life, compatibility, and trust eventually arise and The Real Thing explores the repercussions of infidelity — either real or imagined — that will strike a chord with just about anyone who has been in a relationship. While the story may make some shuffle in their seats, the play entertains and provides a great emotional rollercoaster ride, doing the words of Stoppard proud.