The Real Thing
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
March 14, 2012
Charlotte returns home to enter her tastefully and eruditely appointed living room and find her slightly tipsy husband, Max, building a house of cards while waiting for her. Shielded behind his acerbic wit, Max accuses her of infidelity, having found her passport in a drawer when she was supposedly on business in Switzerland. Though witty and well-paced, The Real Thing begins on an unexpectedly mundane note for Tom Stoppard, who wrote it in the early 1980s. In the second scene we find Charlotte married to another man, a wry, middle-aged playwright named Henry, who is in the midst of selecting his “desert island discs” for an upcoming radio interview and feeling ashamed of his love for '60s girl group pop music over the classical music that he feels an artist of his intellectual caliber should prefer. Charlotte seems somehow different, a bit harder around the edges. Much to her chagrin, Henry tells her that Max is coming over. On Max's arrival it becomes gradually clear that Max and Charlotte are in fact actors, and the first scene was from a play that Henry has written. The action proceeds from there, with Henry eventually leaving Charlotte for Max's actual wife, Annie, another actress who is involved in a public campaign for an imprisoned political vandal, Private Brodie. Henry is reduced to writing television scripts to pay alimony for Charlotte and their teenage daughter, while unable to articulate his real emotions in a promised play for Annie, who meanwhile pursues a romantic dalliance with another actor while working on an out-of-town production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.
Any play about artists entails a certain degree of meta-theatricality. By opening with a play within a play, Stoppard undermines the audience's sense of performance versus reality. This question of authenticity flares out prismatically to frame the entire play. Henry is mired in anxiety over the dissonance between the man he is and the man he thinks he should be. Even Brodie, held up throughout the play as the paragon of real political action, turns out to be an impulsive kid out of his depths, turned into a martyr by a guilt-ridden Annie after he got himself arrested while trying to impress her. That ouroboric reflexivity of art becomes Stoppard's model for how meaning is derived in all arenas of life. Truth is contextual, shifting, fleeting. Things acquire value because we endow them with it, and we are all navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of being cripplingly preoccupied with that notion, or ignoring it entirely. It is a nuanced and heartfelt play.
Boomerang's production at The Secret Theater is a faithful and effective execution of the text. Director Cailin Heffernan honors Stoppard's typical rigorously prescriptive stage directions to a T, focusing on extracting excellent performances from her universally strong cast. Aidan Redmond and Synge Maher as Henry and Annie are particularly compelling, delivering performances that perfectly match the emotional subtlety of the text. Nikki Black's set uses a utilitarian reconfiguration of the same living room furniture to establish the different locations effectively. Heffernan wonderfully utilizes the Secret Theater's wide, shallow space by placing some of the play's most emotionally fraught scenes right up in front of the audience. This adds a sense of voyeuristic intimacy that never feels uncomfortable (or at least unproductively so). Apart from some accent inconsistency in a few minor characters, Boomerang's rendition of Stoppard's play is a flawless and earnest rendition of an intelligent and wonderful play.