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Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle
in The Real Thing
Playwright Tom Stoppard has been getting a bum rap over the years. The conventional wisdom is that Stoppard enchants his audiences by stringing words in front of them like a hypnotist who slowly swings a watch on a chain, and that he isn't the man one thinks of when it comes to probing human feelings on the stage. According to many of his critics, it has only been with his more recent plays--such as Arcadia and The Invention of Love--that Stoppard has revealed a beating heart to match his churning mind.

David Leveaux's revival of The Real Thing, Stoppard's 1982 comedy-drama, refutes this idea. It proves not only that the playwright did infuse his earlier works with pulsing emotion, but that he was aware of the particular effort it took for him to do so. In other words, The Real Thing was (and remains) an admission about an omission of a certain kind. Stoppard himself has said that the piece--with a playwright named Henry as its focal figure--does reflect some of his own attitudes, although he maintains that the play is not autobiographical. Fair enough; if making distinctions between attitudes and actions makes the playwright more comfortable, then so be it.

Stoppard wrote The Real Thing with so much skill that the play still leaves an audience alternately breathless or holding its breath. The work is relentlessly clever in order to illustrate how, in regard to affairs of the heart, cleverness can be a handy cover-up for long denied instincts. "What's so good about putting words together?" Henry is asked, and Stoppard makes a play that shows in equal measure what's great about word manipulation and what's dire about it.

So ingenious is Stoppard in his examination of the search for the "real thing" in love that he begins his play with a scene that is not what it seems to be. This tart, rancorous interlude--in which a man learns he's being betrayed, and a woman owns up to the betrayal--is actually a sequence from playwright Henry's latest piece, House of Cards. But there is an element in this WASPish opus that does reflect a reality of Henry's life: Henry himself has fallen out of love with his wife, Charlotte (the House of Cards actress) and fallen in love with Annie (the actress-wife of the House of Cards actor, Max).

What follows in The Real Thing is a series of brittle, melting scenes that cover the next two and a half years of the characters' lives, providing a look at Henry's and Annie's marriage, Annie's dalliance with a young actor named Billy, and Henry's relationship with his daughter, Debbie. Throughout, Stoppard examines the difficulties inherent in sustaining passion and commitment, and the role that communication--with or without words--plays in the process. The opening play-within-a-play features a man who is erecting a literal house of cards, and with it, the Henry character demonstrates that he's already brooding over the ephemeral quality of romantic alliances. Ironically, Henry's playwriting abilities give him no hedge against love's unfavorable odds; with his face rubbed in Annie's infidelity, he is as bamboozled as the next, less intelligent fellow might be.

Stoppard has always been deft at creating male characters who can't command themselves despite their command of the language. (Remember that, for Stoppard, English is a second language--just as it was for Vladimir Nabokov.) In Henry, who loves bad rock groups but can't get a purchase on classical music, Stoppard has constructed a figure of towering uncertainty. Charlotte accuses Henry of possessing not a sense of humor but a "joke reflex," and she's right. As Henry attempts to deflect flack from his successive wives--the first being philandered on, the second philandering--he is rarely lost for wry words. (When Annie asks him, "Will you stop...," he helpfully replies, "...finishing your sentences?")

Henry's gift for argument and elaboration is astonishing--perhaps heard at its most brilliant in a first-act aria wherein he compares good writing to the design of a cricket bat, and in the second act when he discourses to Debbie about knowledge being at the core of love. "Knowledge is something else," he says, "the undealt card, and while it's held it makes you free and easy and nice to know, and when it's gone everything is pain." In reply to his ingenious rambling, Debbie--herself no slouch in the bon mot department--asks, "Has Annie got someone else, then?"

The Real Thing is Stoppard's speculation about just what that "real thing" might be, and he approaches his subject from various angles. After the initial trompe-l'oeil of the play-within-a-play, he manages to introduce another: Annie and Billy, who are appearing in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, run lines from that play...and then they do so a second time, when they may or may not actually be performing the Elizabethan tragedy for an audience. They also rehearse a meeting-on-a-train scene from a play by a Scottish political prisoner called Brodie, whom Annie had met on a train.

Dropping in and out of real life, then, is Stoppard's metaphor for the conundrum of love. When and how do people recognize if it's genuine? What makes it endure? What threatens it? Though Annie is candid with Henry about her attraction to Billy, she won't call it love ("How can I need someone whom I spend half my life telling to grow up?") She insists it's Henry whom she loves. But when she leaves to meet Billy, it's Henry who's left to cry out--in perhaps the most nakedly emotional moment in any Stoppard play--"Oh, please, please, please, please, don't." And it's Henry who later has to reach a decision about whether he can reconcile himself to the tricky situation. Does he? His last words, uttered in another context, are "I'm still here." (By the way, the influence that The Real Thing has had on stage depictions of modern romance has been especially visible in the last couple of years. Patrick Marber's Closer takes a similar cold look at what binds or doesn't bind men and women; its title alone is meant to be ironic in the same way that the phrase "the real thing" is meant to be ironic. And Donald Margulies' Pulitzer-Prize-winning Dinner With Friends--a study of two marriages, one that keeps and one that doesn't--is practically a gloss on the Stoppard play.)

Jennifer Ehle
in The Real Thing
Although director David Leveaux seems to fully understand The Real Thing, his insights wouldn't amount to much had he not found actors who see in the play what he does. His ears and eyes (and those of Anne McNulty, who gets casting credit) have served him well. Every member of the relatively young, all-British cast--each making his or her a Broadway debut--combines the impenetrability and vulnerability Stoppard's text demands. Stephen Dillane, as Henry, fires on all cylinders. Loose-limbed and lean, he has a shambling way about him, and he also has the blade-sharp delivery necessary for the piece's verbal thrusts and parries. His timing is so polished that, if he ever quits the stage, he might think of loaning himself out in Greenwich for setting clocks by.

Jennifer Ehle makes Annie an open, fresh-faced woman who, nevertheless, can become steely when she thinks she's being conned--or when she's conning. Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Woodward, as the first pair of losers at love, show spine when needed and spinelessness when that's the trait called for. Charlotte Parry's Debbie is a precocious adolescent not afraid to let her immaturity show, which helps turn a hug she shares with Henry into the play's most touching (read: most real) moment. Oscar Pearce as Billy and Joshua Henderson as Brodie are spot-on in parts calling for subtleties of contemporary expression. They demonstrate once again that there's nothing like English drama school training when it comes to mastering the techniques required for the classics or just plain speaking a variety of regional accents.

What makes the acting superlative is that it's as exposed as the brick walls on Vicki Mortimer's sparely furnished set. In contrast, the characters they play can sometimes seem as emotionally impenetrable as the metal plates that are occasionally lowered in front of the brick. All symbolic of human behavior, of course, and all contributing to this play being--there's no other succinct phrase for it--the real thing.

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