Have you given your life over to artifice, sacrificed authenticity for convention, hidden your real self from the public view? No? Well, you’re wearing pants, aren’t you? So, the question on the table in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is with how much artifice will we armor ourselves, and for how long; and his answer – not to give anything away – is all of it, and forever.
Consider: an architect (Don Domingues) waits in his living room for his wife (Caroline Bootle Pendergast), who is returning from Switzerland. He is as coiled as – well, let’s just say it – as Bryce Harper waiting on a three-and-one fastball. She enters, and he sets in on her immediately, showering her with Noël Coward-like dialogue, witty and brittle. “How was Frank?” he asks, and when she expresses confusion, he explains, “the Swiss franc, I mean.” His rapid-fire patter seems well-rehearsed, and delivered confidently – as it should be, since he holds the trump card. At the climactic moment, he pulls out her passport. She hasn’t been to Switzerland at all; she has been with a lover. Defenestrated by his detective work and dialogue, she leaves in weepy defeat.
Well! Our architect is triumphant, thanks to his clever use of language and his detective work. On the other hand, his wife has left him, and she, even though undone by her husband’s cleverness, still has someone with whom to share a warm bed.
And then we discover that not only did our architect’s lines seem well-rehearsed, they were well-rehearsed – by the actor Max (Domingues), who played the architect, and the actor Charlotts(Pendergat), who played his wife. In real life, Charlotte is the wife of the literary playwright Henry (Teagle F. Bougere, looking and sounding very different than he did in Invisible Man). In real life, Charlotte is not having an affair. In real life, Henry is – with Max’s wife Annie (Annie Purcell).
In Coward’s time we called these drawing-room comedies, but as we no longer have drawing rooms they are something else now. Whatever this one is, Stoppard layers it with wormy reality, full of confusions and misunderstandings and bad assumptions. Annie’s great cause is to get the moronic thug Brodie (Tim Getman) released from prison, where he is being kept because he started a fire in a war memorial and thereafter slugged a policeman, thus making him a hero to the left. Worse, he has written an illiterate teleplay, which Annie wants Henry to turn into something producible (turning “unreadable drivel into readable drivel”, he concludes). So what’s authentic? To turn his back on art and logic, and support Annie’s project? Or to turn his back on Annie? To tell the truth to Charlotte, and break her heart? Or to lie, and break his own?
“It is unliterary to love and be loved,” Henry says at one point, and he is right; it is pre-literary, in that homo sapiens sought to love and be loved for tens of thousands of years before the time of Homer. Love, and the need for love, leaves us whimpering like animals; there are no fine words which can enhance or diminish its power. The architect in Henry’s play undid his cheating spouse with well-placed bon mots, but they did not bring her back to him, or otherwise diminish his suffering.
The parallels between Henry – an intellectual who uses words with laser-like precision, an anti-Marxist with a low tolerance for reflexive politically correct thinking, and a gooey enthusiast of pop music – and Stoppard are unmistakable, and it is a credit to Studio’s intelligent, no-nonsense production that this thought will not cross your mind until you read your program (or this review). Director David Muse creates the fictive dream – that is to say, authenticity – quickly, authoritatively, and twice: once for Henry’s play, and once for Stoppard’s.
Authenticity, by the same way, is not the same thing as concision. “I write scenes,” Stoppard once explained, “often quite long scenes – mainly because I still get seduced into writing six lines where one and a half will do.” Yea, verily, amen, brother; and he does not abandon that showy predilection here. But Stoppard’s showiness is authentically the playwright’s, just as Henry’s is authentically the character’s.
The Real Thing
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2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
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The challenge is more complex for Purcell and particularly Bougere. Henry is a man for whom language is a technique to control his life; when he controls his language he is perforce a powerful man. And, perhaps, an artificial one as well – a character in one of his own plays. When he lets loose with a particularly literary trope to open a story, his daughter (Barrett Doss) begs him to say what he really means. “When I first fell in love,” he amends.
Bougere walks a tightrope; authenticity is the holy grail of acting, and Bougere must portray an authentically inauthentic man. He does it well; when Henry pleads the case for literary discipline over inartful but honest self-expression he does so with passion as well as style, and we come to understand that the most authentic part of Henry is the part which embraces artifice. Purcell’s Annie is his antagonist in this, but Annie has some secrets of her own. When they come out, Purcell has left enough room in her portrayal for us to understand how hard it is to embody the real thing.
Which we get, by the way, in the play’s closing moments, when the oafish Brodie appears. He is unquestionably the realest thing in The Real Thing, and his wholly authentic nature – lascivious, ungrateful, narcissistic – confirms Henry’s view (and that of John Calvin) of natural man. Getman in this role is large, loud and dangerous; an affront to decent people, and thus perfect.
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard . Directed by David Muse, featuring Don Domingues, Caroline Bootle Pendergast, Teagle F. Bougere, Annie Purcell, Enrico Nassi, Barrett Doss and Tim Getman . Scenic design: James Noone . Lighting design: Brian MacDevitt . Costume design: Kaye Voyce . Sound Design: Matthew M. Nielson. Dialect coach: Gary Logan . Jesse Aashelm was the production manager, Michael Donohue was the technical director, and John Keith Hall was the stage manager. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor .