Keeping It Real
Despite its somewhat labored Actors Theatre of Phoenix production, there's plenty to recommend Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. There's the richness of its writing, the allure of its subject, and the astonishing range of emotions its people endure. This is the kind of play that used to be dubbed "a modern classic" back when people really cared about theater. Today, it's merely a darn good play.
So good, in fact, that it survives director David Vining's near-miss staging. Vining has moved lesser productions to greater heights, and here he's cast strong principals who read Stoppard's chatty script persuasively. But he's shortchanged the script's subplot, about a would-be playwright with militant aspirations, and coaxed only adequate performances from most of his supporting cast, several of whom are asked to carry important scenes.
The Real Thing is about a Stoppardian playwright, Henry, whose work mirrors his immediate concerns: marital fidelity, intellectual integrity and the war between art and pop culture. It shifts quickly between real life and the stage, a conceit that highlights truth and fiction, and keeps us guessing where we are from scene to scene. That's because, for Henry, the two worlds -- the one he's living, and the one he's writing for the stage -- spill over into one another with amusing regularity.
The story's ever-changing perspective is its mainstay: Early on, we watch a play-within-a-play about a married couple discussing the wife's affair with another man; later, we watch a similar scene unfold in Henry's real life. Later still, two actors meet on a train, where they enact a scene (in which they meet on a train) from a film they're both about to appear in; we see them again when they're filming the scene and wonder: Which is this, their life or their work?
This Pirandellian trickery is trumped only by Stoppard's superb monologues. The Real Thing is the source of his wonderful and much-revered "cricket and bat speech," in which Henry portrays writing as a game of cricket where an idea is tossed into the air and batted about.
But for a transient accent (which placed him sometimes in Devonshire, other times in Cleveland), Randy Messersmith's Henry is appealingly sincere; he conveys both the playwright's big heart and frantic mind without ever squandering a line. The supporting cast, populated by accomplished actors, mostly plays at a routine level. Ben Tyler's performance is the exception. Asked to run an emotional marathon, he races from wry comedy to serene pathos with great style; his best bit is playing a lousy actor in a bad British farce in the opening play-within-a-play.
The action unfolds on a stunningly simple set designed by Rosario Provenza, one that made me want to upholster the walls of my home. Just as quickly as Stoppard's story shifts gears, Provenza's Spartan living room changes identity simply by switching the contents of a single bookcase.
Stoppard is often received as an intellectual author who favors smarts over sentiment. But The Real Thing, which debuted in London in 1982 before moving to Broadway the following year, is a deeply emotional drama. If anything, Stoppard's customary generosity with a joke is restrained here. Luckily, his talent for burying layers of meaning in simple, idiomatic language is not. The result of that rich language is, in this case, a performance of one of Stoppard's best plays that succeeds in spite of itself.
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