Not enough real heart in revival of ‘The Real Thing’

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In Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play “The Real Thing,” a writer struggles to break the wall of glib wordplay he has erected around his heart and find real connection with the woman he loves.

“The Real Thing” opens with a husband (Seann Gallagher) confronting his wife (Carrie Paff) about her adultery. It is later revealed that the opening was a play within the play, a scene from a production of “House of Cards” (no relation to the Netflix production; Stoppard wrote this in 1982), written by Henry (Elijah Alexander), the cerebral, charmingly disheveled playwright at the center of the play. The twist purposely blurs fiction and reality, a thin line that will be crossed as the show goes on.

In the reality of “The Real Thing,” Henry is married to actress Charlotte (Carrie Paff) but sleeping with another actress and activist Annie (Liz Sklar), who is married to actor Max (Seann Gallagher.) Like his onstage counterpart Henry, Stoppard had a reputation for being more concerned with language than feeling. He also had an affair with an actress, for whom he left his second wife. For Henry, life imitates art as his relationship with Annie begins to mirror his own play in alarming ways. For Stoppard, this play is a fastidious imitation of his own life.

The personal nature of the material and the script’s rom-com touch implies that “The Real Thing” may find the passionate core beneath the high-minded witticisms, but this Aurora Theatre Company production never quite frees Henry from his cocoon of emotional detachment.

Part of this is because the stakes never seem to be terribly high when marriages are broken in “The Real Thing.” The actors give the roles their all, but the relentless cleverness of the script makes the play impenetrable to genuine feeling. Henry dumps Charlotte for Annie with alarming ease. Annie’s lack of sympathy for her heartbroken ex, Max, is more complex and interesting, an almost liberatory selfishness, but the effect is still a lack of investment in the affairs of this romantic quadrilateral.

Then there is Stoppard’s gorgeous, dense, purposefully artificial language. This of course, is Stoppard’s style  —  intellectual and droll. Here, Stoppard is aggressively self-aware, and Henry’s eloquent, rambling speechifying is what makes it so hard for him to give in to love. Yet the impenetrable language of the play leaves little room for vulnerability. In anticipating critique, “The Real Thing” never opens up fully.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to like here. The emotional depth might not come through in Stoppard’s writing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasure to watch four talented actors wielding spitting sharp lines at each other while lounging on their respective sofas. After all, Stoppard is smart. On relationships, Charlotte says “There are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day.” It’s one of many great lines, spoken by a talented actress in a nice British lilt.

The pop soundtrack to “The Real Thing” is also great fun, though Henry’s embarrassment at his love for the music of The Ronettes and The Supremes feels dated and pretentious in a way that isn’t relatable in 2017. Who isn’t moved by The Supremes?

Far more disturbingly, Henry makes an extended joke pretending he had sex with a sleeping Annie. It is told so lightly, so “wittily,” that it’s not immediately clear what Henry means, but his casual tone makes it all the more sinister to sandwich a quip about rape nonchalantly between Henry’s comedic bits.

For the most part, “The Real Thing” is perfectly diverting and neatly structured. The plays embedded in the play create a sort of mini-mystery, and characters hold forth on engrossing debates on love, loyalty, politics and reality. Yet as Henry learns in the course of the play, cleverness is not enough. The answer is in the play. As Max says to Henry, “You may have all the words, but having all the words is not what life’s about.”

“The Real Thing” is currently playing at Aurora Theatre Company until March 5.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.

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