“Tom Stoppard has had quite a year in Wilmington. First, the much anticipated production of his breakthrough hit, “Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead,” ran as part of the season at UNCW. Now, as part of the Red Barn Studio’s summer series, Thalian Association has brought one of his lesser-known shows to the stage, “The Real Thing.”
Stoppard is probably best known to American popular audiences for “Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead,” as well as his film work (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Anna Karenina”). His catalog is vast, and he continues to produce new work constantly.
Tennessee Williams told us all plays are autobiographical. In Stoppard’s case, some are just more obviously so, and “The Real Thing” is one of them. Written and produced in the early 1980s, it marks a transition in his writing. Throughout most of the ‘70s his work grappled with reconciling the realities of life behind the iron curtain—especially for artists and intellectuals. But we humans do not live in vacuums of ideals and politics (as Stoppard explores time and again in his work). We live in a world where, say what you will, the greatest ambition for most of us is to love and be loved in return. Sometimes that takes the mask and expression of lust, jealousy or even petty vengeance. “The Real Thing” is Stoppard, all intellectual pretension included, exploring human frailty (his own especially) in pursuit of love.
Enter two couples: Max (Joshua Bailey) and Annie (Maggie Miller), and Charlotte (Amanda Young) and Henry (Bradley Coxe). They all work in the theatre: Henry as a playwright, the rest as actors. The couples are about to split up and rearrange, largely, but not entirely, because Annie and Henry are having an affair together.
Henry is based quite obviously upon Stoppard, who is currently on his third marriage and carried on an affair with Felicity Kendall, who originated the role of Annie. I can’t even imagine how daunting and intimidating it must be to play the greatest living playwright, but Coxe seems the least bit intimidated by this experience. It might be his best work to date. When we first meet Henry, he is supreme and confidant in his intellectual superiority, and uses his wit and pretension to poke deflating holes into the life and ego of Max. He plays word games with an ease that is unlikeable—it is so second nature, as he and Charlotte wear each other out by picking on one other. The couple shadows Albee’s George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—they’re just not as loud. Their exchanges are intense, and poor Max is justifiably unnerved by it.
If anything, Bailey gives up the most likable character in this equation. Though Annie is attractive, sexy and alluring, she is actually incredibly selfish and awful when peeling back her pretty veneer. (“It’s just two marriages and a child,” she predicts of the damage of the affair becoming public.) But Bailey’s Max is the most human, fallible, likeable, and perhaps the least well-equipped with armor and weaponry to play in the big leagues with these selfish people. It’s painful to watch him slowly come to that realization; it’s wonderful to watch his skill in seeing it unfold.
Of the two female roles, it is clear, though our playwright is attracted to and likes women, his experiences with them in real life must be terribly fraught. Young’s Charlotte at first appears to be someone I wouldn’t want to spend an hour with, let alone a lifetime. Yet, once freed from what she knows to be an indifferent at best marriage to Henry, the play reveals her not as a Hadrian but a flawed, normal person, with expected responses and reflexes. It is quite an emotional range to get through in the show, and Young moves us there quite consistently.
Then there is Annie, the alluring Annie, who can bring a determined, committed intellectual playwright to his earthy, lustful knees. Of all Miller’s choices, the one to make her sexuality pretty and classy rather than overt and trashy is the best. That veneer makes it surprising and hard to see the underlying selfishness and almost sociopathic behavior that moves her through life. Mirroring all her calm reserve, we find the antics of Billy (Matt Carter)—one of her young conquests with youthful energy, vigor and childish neediness—just cannot be contained. As foils, they work well together.
Director Robb Mann manages to find the humor (both ironic and ridiculous) in what is at the heart of the play: a very sad story. Because the search for love generally is bittersweet at best for many people, frightening for most, it is terrifying to realize when your life is in someone else’s hands. By the end of this episode in their lives, I found myself thinking, “Thank god, it’s over,” believing they could now be happy, because that is what we all think about the rough and confusing times in our lives. But adultery is rarely an isolated incident, and human behavior follows cyclical patterns for most of us. Chances are, this isn’t the end for any of them, nor was it the end for Stoppard’s cycle in real life.
Stoppard’s dialogue is tough for actors: fast, realistic yet filled with word play, double meaning and puns galore. It must be hell to memorize, let alone make it trip off the tongue in a natural manner while still giving the audience time to absorb it. But the cast meets the expectations at every turn. The performances are really remarkable.
For an evening of exceptional writing and strong performances, “The Real Thing” is a real winner.