Third time’s the charm? Well, almost.
Prior to the Wilma’s The Real Thing, I’d seen Tom Stoppard’s play in two different productions, and neither was satisfying. The first time, the cast played it so archly, with every line delivered as a bon mot, I was thoroughly put off. In the next, it was the opposite problem – the actors strove so hard to be “real” that I could barely hear them. I felt like an unwanted guest (and, hey – I wasn’t even reviewing it!)
When I mentioned this to a wise friend, he pointed out that these are the two potential pitfalls of the show in production. It needs to be theatrical, but not too theatrical. Also real, but not too real.
Let me explain. In The Real Thing, two couples to confront questions of honesty, fidelity, and secrets. (“Couples” is an oversimplification –these four men and women have complicated, intersecting relationships that change over time.)
The play is unusually straightforward for Stoppard, but he does have some tricks. All four of the characters are in show-business – Henry, the principal male, is a playwright, and the other three – Annie, Charlotte, and Max – are actors. This allows Stoppard free rein to riff on the vanity and obsessions common to this world, and also gives him a platform in which not every scene is exactly what we think it is. (I won’t say more – you should discover it for yourselves.)
It’s a brilliant structure because it strikes to the heart of the title question – can we ever know what’s real?
At the Wilma, my heart soared in the first few minutes – the four main actors seemed to get the balance exactly right, and in fact they continued to do so throughout (especially Kevin Collins as Henry, and Karen Peakes as Charlotte). Was this finally The Real Thing I’d been waiting for?
Alas, not quite. Soon into the proceedings, director David Kennedy introduces a new and unexpected pitfall – he presents the entire piece as a play-within-a play. This frame not only makes everything look too busy, it also nullifies Stoppard’s central theme – within this world, by definition, nothing can be real.
It’s really the only misstep in this production, but it’s bad mistake. An “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” mistake.
To the extent that we can ignore the gimmick and focus on the scenes, there are satisfying elements here. But with less interventionist direction, it could have been so much more.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep trying to find that perfect production. Hope springs eternal. Maybe next time will be the real thing.