"The Real Thing"

By Eddie Reynolds

Boundaries between real life and life on the stage, between the written word and the spoken word, and between married couples who are also friends are just some of the borders constantly blurring and leading to surprises for the characters and the audience of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.  Are offered words of love ever actually genuinely given, or is the person just following an internal script of ‘here is what I am supposed to say at this point as if I really mean it’?  Is being a passionate lover the same as being in love, and can one really tell the difference?  What makes a writer’s words worthy versus worthless, and who gets to decide the true merit?  What makes a cause (or a person) truly merited enough to support, and how does one trust that the cause if not just someone’s ego trip? 

On and on the questions arise as Tom Stoppard challenges his characters, his audience, and probably himself to explore reality versus the appearance of reality.  Aurora Theatre presents his double-Tony-winning The Real Thing (1984 for Best Play and 2000 for Best Revival of a Play)  -- a play some may believe is too overloaded with the very words that the playwright calls “sacred” while others will relish the verbal, philosophical exposes and arguments its characters pour forth and the resulting questions that those words do not answer. 

In his silk, paisley PJs and a stylish blue-striped robe, handsome Max puts the final touches on a multi-layered pyramid of cards just as his wife Charlotte returns from a business trip, slamming the front door and bringing down his masterpiece.  His multiple inquiries about her trip to Switzerland that zing across the room like a barrage of arrows are met with her skilled avoidance and increasing annoyance.  Even an Alpine, souvenir snow globe is not going to help his obvious suspicion since we and she soon learn he has rummaged the bedroom to find her passport that never left the bedside drawer, leading him to accuse her of adultery.  Seann Gallagher and Carrie Paff offer electrically charged, compelling performances as Max and Charlotte, and only in the second scene do we realize that this very real situation is actually just a scene from a play in which the two actors (who are only friends, not spouses) are jointly starring. 

We will also soon see that life will imitate art in more ways than one, even in details like similar gifts brought home to convince spouses of trips not taken.  We will also learn that Charlotte and Max are much more interesting and dynamic on the stage than they are in life, each being a mixture of superficial and bland once off their stage and away from their scripts.  What they each have going for them is that their other half (a playwright named Henry as Charlotte’s husband and an actress named Annie as Max’s wife) is in fact very alive and attractive on many dimensions.  But it just so happens, we soon learn at a dinner party of the two couples, their spouses have a mutual attraction all their own that is about to come out into the explosive open.

The bulk of the play now centers on the now-married divorcees, Henry and Annie, and the aspects of their own relationship (and other extracurricular relationships) that seem constantly to fade in and out of reality, fantasy, and somewhere in between.  Liz Sklar drips with sincerity, caring, and concern as Annie; but how much is this just Annie’s actress self and how much is her real self soon is on the table for our and Henry’s analysis.  Annie is clearly directing her own life’s play much of the time and writing a script where she will be the last person standing and in control.  Often, her face and posture are in full disbelief if anyone suggests a reality different from the one she sees and wants as true.  She is championing an imprisoned soldier, Brodie, who was arrested in a protest for setting fire to a Tomb of an Unknown Soldier’s displayed wreath.  But when challenged by husband Henry that her hero may not be all that he appears, she refuses to budge in her opinion even when confronted with a terribly written play he has created about his own life. 

Through Annie, Stoppard pushes Henry’s and our buttons about what boundaries in reality do and do not exist when it comes to marital love.  She tests Henry to see if he can sustain his love for her even when it does not match his idealistic definition.  “You have to find a place in yourself where I am not a part, or you won’t be worth loving,” she advises as Tom Stoppard himself seems to be giving himself some advice about disappointments he is having or has had in his so-called committed relationships.  And when Annie lays it bluntly all on the line to Henry that “I have to choose whom I hurt, and I choose you because I’m yours,” it becomes difficult for us not to believe that The Real Thing is actually about the real life experiences and lessons Stoppard is recalling and reflecting upon.

Henry often becomes the voice of Stoppard the writer.  Elijah Alexander is sometimes almost like a teenager in his ebullience about life as the playwright Henry.  As a playwright, he seems to be the one always to be on stage, seeking the spotlight with his over-dramatics.  He becomes so enthused at times that he literally bounces, jumps, plops, and crawls all about the stage before us – all the time demurring about music, words and writing, love, and other subjects that a playwright such as he or Stoppard could elaborate for seemingly ever and ever (which at times, Henry almost does). 

It is to written words that Henry returns again and again to reflect:  “They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.”  That passion also leads Henry to be the loyal lover who hurts to the core when he realizes Annie may not define love and commitment that way he does.  Mr. Alexander gives time and again the performance of the night as his Henry struggles to make sense of the blurred boundaries Annie places on their marriage while also realizing he is forever trapped within them, a prisoner of his own love for her.

Tommy Gorrebeeck plays Brodie, the imprisoned, supposed anarchist that Annie dotes on and also the antithesis of everything Henry (and probably Stoppard) believe in.  He also double as Billy, an actor working with Annie where a script’s eroticism jumps from the words on page into the bodies enacting them on the rehearsal stage.  Their play-acting turned real passion sets up an ongoing affair where again what is real and what is not (and maybe still just an act) is not at all clear, especially to husband Henry.  In both parts but in very different ways, Mr. Gorrebeeck is raw in his emotions, pushy in his desires, and sure of his own worth.

As Henry’s and his ex’s (Charlotte’s) daughter Debbie, Emily Radosevich is a confident, cocky teen ready to set out on her own at the ripe age of seventeen.  She pushes her parents’ boundaries as she straddles between child and adult, speaking her own sage advice to her father (whom she calls “Fa”) as he struggles with a writer’s block:  “Don’t write it, Fa, just say it” (something we can imagine the real playwright Stoppard has often said to himself).

The borders between art and life are further meshed by the choice of music linking the many scenes of The Real Thing.  Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers ensures the right mood is set for all entering audience members who are of an age to share Henry’s (and Stoppard’s) love for the rock songs of the 1960s and ‘70s, with hit after hit leading to more than just a few members singing along as they sit and wait for opening curtain.  The storyline of the play is then time and again accentuated and events underlined by inter-scene songs that reflect what has just happened (e.g., “Bring back that lovin’ feeling’, ‘cause it’s gone, gone, gone,” Righteous Brothers).  Like the playwright’s use of many words to get across his points, the repeated encore of the play’s themes in the chosen music (which also includes well-known opera numbers) may play well to some audience members’ liking and may very well be seen as overkill by others.

Nina Ball’s extremely flexible scenic design mixes and matches easily moved sofa pieces into a myriad of formations and reforms the sections of the colorful back wall built-in into a number of designs, further reminding us that there is no boundary that cannot be broken in this production.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting design of varying recessed and focused lights help to establish the various settings of the multi-scene play. 

Final kudos must go to Timothy Near for directing the flow and pace of the production in such a way to guarantee that the various plays within the play are just as real as real as the supposed real events and that the real events often slip quickly into something more like a stage show.  Her directorial prowess combined with the acting skills of her cast help make this Aurora Theatre production of The Real Thing a worthwhile and enjoyable outing, even if sometimes the playwright goes on and on with his sacred words.

Rating: 4 E


The Real Thing continues in extended run through March 5, 2017 at Aurora Theatre’s Main Stage, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.


Photos Credit: David Allen