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Neil Stewart, Natalie Brown, Stephen Russell, and Debra Wise
in The Real Thing
There are moments in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, now midway through a delightful run at the New Repertory Theatre outside of Boston, when the author really challenges us to retain empathy for the protagonists. Annie and Henry's love affair begins when both are still married; Annie explains to Henry that she finds her betrayed husband's misery over her to be "tedious"; Henry mentions offhandedly, and unapologetically, that he has had sex with Annie while she was sleeping. It is testament to Stoppard's prodigious abilities as a dramatist that not only do we forgive the couple these unforgivable things, we indeed begin to love them as we watch them learn to love one another.

It is testament, too, to the skill of director Rick Lombardo, who guides a truly remarkable cast through Stoppard's ever-shifting landscape of love and betrayal (and through set designer Janie E. Howland's rotating, two-room set). Henry, the pretentious playwright whose sarcasm can border on the cruel, is played by Neil Stewart to obnoxious perfection; Stewart is so real in the role, we cannot dismiss Henry as a simple jerk, because we want to know why he acts that way. Debra Wise as Annie, Henry's inamorata, has a marvelous way of being alive on stage--her Annie is in constant motion. When upset, she brings her hands up over her head and squeezes shut her eyes, as if wishing to be a child again, regressed away from the lust and pettiness of adulthood.

The Real Thing begins with a fictional moment: What looks like a couple breaking up is in fact scene from Henry's latest play. The woman is Charlotte (Natalie Brown), Henry's wife; the man is Max (wonderfully shlubby Stephen Russell), Alice's husband. When the four of them get together in the second scene, the barbs and flirtation are right out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Lombardo's cast enjoys every minute. But get too caught up in the badinage and you miss Stoppard's deft sleight of hand as he moves from a fake onstage breakup to a conversation about that fakeness (as Charlotte needles her husband for his artifice as a writer) to a real breakup that involves much less banter and many more tears.

From there, Stoppard follows Henry and Annie, the playwright and the actress, as they try to move beyond an illicit, lustful, stolen romance towards something enduring. As they do so, Stoppard's continues to explore the question of what is or is not real. Annie follows the cause of Brodie, a soldier jailed for political protest, but Henry suggests that the man's "protest" was really just vandalism. Annoyed by Brodie's attempts to write a play, Henry declaims on the nature of great art (allowing Stoppard an articulate defense of his own profession) but must admit that he makes his living writing sci-fi serials. Then Annie takes a gig in Glasgow, far from home, and the couple confronts the realness of their devotion.

Fine performances are given in the smaller roles, as well, including Tommy Day Carey as Annie's would-be seducer and Jake Suffian as a stumbling drunk. And speaking of casting: According to his bio, Stewart did the voice of the villain in the film Pokemon 2000. I missed that performance, but I can assure you that his Henry--a rogue and a maddening cynic, saved by Stoppard from dull villainy--is a remarkable turn.

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