Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Real Thing

Terry Schreiber's production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is a straightforward revival. When it comes to such a complicated playwright, especially when dealing with such a complicated subject, this is a compliment. After all, according to the scholarly protagonist, the Pinteresque playwright Henry (the marvelous Jason Tomarken), words are precise, and they don't deserve malarkey. That's why it's terrific to see another impeccably realistic George Allison set--this time, a clean, upscale, modernist apartment--and to have, for the most part, such clear performances.

However, as Max (Brian Drillinger) observes, "Having all the answers is not what life's about." After the first act, the technical precision of the work starts getting tiring, as it becomes clear that few of the actors feel the passion. Just as this dismantles the characters in the play, who are undone by their lack of knowledge (which Henry equates with the Greek "carnal" kind), it also slows the production down. In the first act, Max and Charlotte (Aimee Jolson) get away with it because they're appearing in Henry's play House of Cards, and before Annie (Meghan Jones) reveals her infidelity to Max, she has plenty of giddy subtext to play as she casts sidelong glances at Henry over crudites. But as this "honeymoon" wears off, Stoppard's clever language runs the risk of being what Henry's daughter, Debbie (Maura McNamara), calls "persuasive nonsense."

This is where Schreiber earns his keep: he keeps the emphasis on Tomarken's complicated portrayal of Henry, even going so far as to put Henry in the background of Annie's adulterous scenes with the actor Billy (Harmon Walsh), so that we have the sense of watching the scene through Henry's creative and increasingly emotional mind. The technical transitions are also handled well, particularly as Henry's life mirrors the opening scene-within-a-scene. It doesn't entirely excuse Annie's confused nurturing of Billy as a substitute for Brodie (Ryan Michael Jones), her first political cause, but it helps the play to focus on what's real--in all of its glory and anguish.

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