Review: THE REAL THING

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

And then the lights went out.

Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing was one scene--about fifteen minutes--from the end of the play when the power failed for the third time this week at the Wilma Theater.  I wish they had finished the play in the dark, pretending it was a radio play, just talking it (and maybe singing its finale, "I'm a Believer"—we all could have sung along!). But I'm sure there are plenty of liability issues to prevent an audience's sitting in a darkened theatre.

Instead, after the announcement “This is not part of the play” met with a standing ovation, the audience was shepherded out with the aid of flashlights. (Saturday, ticket-holders were e-mailed invitations to any performance to watch the second act or the minutes they missed on monitors in the lobby. They were also offered the script of the missing scene.)

Up until then, it was lovely having a Stoppard play—their tenth--on the Wilma stage again.  The Real Thing is as close as intellectual Stoppard gets to rom-com: love and lust and broken and mended hearts, as two married couples break up and recouple. The dialogue is, as we expect from Stoppard, filled with sparkling jewels of wit and wisdom.

That the central character is a playwright and the other characters are actors means that inevitably the play is about theater. And about art imitating life. And vice versa. Where's the real thing?

The Real Thing begins with a man building a house of cards while waiting for his wife to return home. He sits in a living room that looks like a William Bailey painting. Do not be fooled by this apparent serenity. As a matter of fact, don't be fooled by the whole first scene. Stoppard's plays almost always begin with a false front; we believe our eyes only to have a play say to us, "Really??  Come on, it's just an illusion, it's theater."

Actress Charlotte (Karen Peakes is absolutely perfect in the role) is married to playwright Henry (Kevin Collins); actor Max (Dan Hodge) is married to actress Annie (Suzy Jane Hunt).  Henry and Annie fall in love, although fidelity is nobody's strong suit.  There is a clever teenage daughter (Hannah Gold) and a political thug (Harry Smith).

The play is crammed with fleeting references to Miss Julie, Othello, A Doll's House, Romeo and Juliet and Tis Pity She's a Whore, and we catch the allusions as we can (rom-com or not, this is Stoppard).

But Director David Kennedy decided to out-meta Stoppard, and in the process diluted many of the play's niftiest effects. The Wilma stage becomes both stage and backstage simultaneously, with costume racks and coffee machines in full view behind the playing area, so there is none of the dazzling fake/real, fake/real fluctuation in the scenes. Further, he has the actors who are not in the scene hanging around (there is one fabulous moment when Annie, ranting about Charlotte, points to her as she sits silently on the sidelines). 

The effect is that instead of startling shifts in scene and tone, it all blurs into one undefined thing; this struck me as visually and structurally messy, not Stoppard's precision-crafted script. The delivery—especially by Collins and Hunt-- is too earnest and too strident; what's needed are actors who can be self-ironizing and passionate at the same time (think a young Bill Nighy or Jeremy Irons).

 But, despite these disappointments, both electrical and theatrical, The Real Thing is a fascinating play, full of Stoppard's glittering dialogue, and it is well worth seeing.

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Wilma Theater, Broad & Spruce Sts. Through June 22. Tickets $35-68

Information: wilmatheater.org or 215-546-7824.

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