Infidelity and romance, intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, creativity and advocacy, honesty and deception—they’re heavy-hitting themes that make up Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” which opens at Red Barn Studio Theatre this weekend. The play debuted in 1982 (even starring Glen Close in the role of Annie at one point), and since it has been lauded by audiences and critics alike. It scored the Drama Desk and Tony awards twice, for its initial debut and revival in 2000, plus the NY Drama Critics Circle and Evening Standard awards.
A play within a play, the show follows four main characters, Charlotte and Henry and Max and Annie. Henry’s a playwright who has cast his wife in one of the lead roles within his latest work, alongside their mutual friend, Max, who’s married to Annie. Annie’s an actress, as well as a staunch activist who fights for the rights of Brodie, a gentleman arrested for setting fire to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. In a twist of fate, which incites greater inquisitions into the social conventions of monogamy, infidelities take place and couples break up, only to reveal a commonality we all ask of the human condition: What is love?
“It’s a very realistic piece,” director Robb Mann says. “It’s a universal theme that applies just as much now as when it was first written. And there is some truly beautiful language in it.”
Though Mann’s familiar with Stoppard’s work (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Arcadia”), he hadn’t read or seen “The Real Thing” until the call from Thalian Association was put out for a director for the show. He immediately connected with Stoppard’s ability to be realistic yet funny without being absurd. “The Real Thing” lobs smart humor against intense action to grasp the attention of audiences.
“It’s a mix of drama and comedy,” Mann says. “Almost all of the comedy comes from dialogue and reactions, as opposed to say a more physical or exaggerated style. . . . The show is about love, and what separates mere attraction from ‘the real thing.’ Hopefully, this will resonate with an audience, causing some self-examination in regards to beliefs.”
The language of the play is potent and the actors are sticking to British accents to flesh out the setting in London 1982. With set design constructed by Ben Fancy, along with props overseen by Michael O’Connell, the intimate space of Red Barn has to transform into upward of seven locations. Mann will differentiate them by furniture layout and lighting, overseen by Lance Howell. “The set is somewhat abstract,” Mann says. “The idea being that the actors are the focal point.”
The show features Josh Bailey as Max, Amanda Young as Charlotte, Bradley Coxe as Henry, Maggie Miller as Annie, Olivia Arokiasamy as Debbie, and Zeb Mims as Brodie. Though there was an impressive turnout for auditions, Mann focused on individuals who brought the most honesty to their portrayals. “They’re more like real people than characters on a stage,” he says of each role. “Like real people, there are moments of humor as well as pathos, indifference and excitement.”
“I feel twice as funny and five times as smart every time I let [Henry] talk,” Coxe says. “Even on small throwaway lines, his words sound so much better than any combination I come up with to express the same thought.”
Henry—who’s a bit contradicting between belief and action—evolves through much of the show. Stoppard, in fact, mirrored some of this character at the time of the play’s debut. During the show, he left his wife, Miriam, for actress Felicity Kendal who was playing Annie.
“I’ve always known I would play Annie one day,” Miller says. “And I’ve had a love/hate relationship with that thought. I think I was initially most intimidated by the number of scenes, lines and quick changes. Honestly, there is a lot I don’t like about Annie. She is very different from me. Initially, I was a little disgusted by her—judgemental. As I continued to dig deeper, I’ve grown to respect her—even admire her in some ways.”
The subtext of character is where most actors become drawn to Stoppard’s world. Yet, he not only requires extra thinking from actors, he demands the audience think through the work, too. Simplicity is not inherent in the text; each character comes with a bevy of interpretations.
“To say that Charlotte is a strong, independent woman is an understatement,” Young notes. “I admire her quick wit immensely, as well as the fact that she isn’t afraid to say exactly what she wants. I would imagine she would seem intimidating or worse to some, but I am learning how to be fearless with language. . . . Simply reading her words on the page, it’s obvious that she could go many different directions, some of which may convey her as mean, manipulative or bitter. Robb has been a huge help for me in finding the moments in which Charlotte is really funny—not just biting.”
After sitting through intense table-reads and moving to blocking and dress rehearsals, the pieces are falling into place for the show’s Thursday-night opening. Mann not only promises it “an actor’s dream,” but a top pick for anyone who loves good theatre.
“’The Real Thing’ is fresh and different, but with an immediate feeling of being truthful,” Bailey agrees. “Even 30 years later, it feels immediate and important in a way that many other texts might not. It doesn’t age—or, perhaps, it ages incredibly well.”