Once a long time ago, on a dampish isle some miles off the coast of France, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Flippancy is the armor against God’s Grace.” Actually, I’m not sure of that quote. Let’s say Lewis could have scribbled down any or all of the following: “Acerbic retorts are the armor against God’s Grace;” or “Cutting repartee is armor against God’s Grace;” or “Oscar Wilde, in general, and his plays, in particular, are armor against God’s Grace.” Regardless of the exact singsong of the quote, the point holds: to be perpetually droll is terrifyingly akin to being perpetually cruel. Take that Kelsey Grammer, you little balding bitch.
There is something inhuman in forever pacing the ramparts of your tower, sniping the hapless villages below with vicious witticisms. In Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, “The Real Thing,” the protagonist, a gifted but snappish playwright named Henry, keeps the whole cast in his crosshairs. Henry passes the two hours of stage-time mocking the assorted weaknesses of lovers, husbands, offspring and political prisoners. This makes you hate Henry sometimes— but Stoppard is too deft a playwright to abandon his protagonist to the fate of annoying-ass Smarty Pants. Henry is also, contrary to the crushing reality of his sex life, a diehard, old school believer in capital-L LOVE. Well, at least, Henry is as much of a romantic idealist as a man who cheats on his wife and child and runs away with an actress can be. This play has a lovely way of vexing the simplest assumptions of character.
“The Real Thing” is an unromantic, fairly unflinching exploration of the practical viability of monogamy, the existence of true love, and the possibility of absolute, enduring emotional commitments. Prepare yourself for some pretty openly conversational scenes in the play, where nihilism tangos with absolutism, traditional values trades barbs with, well you know— all that heavy, philosophical stuff I mentioned in the prior sentence. But don’t fret: this play is funny. Not in a “Battles of the Sexes,” clichéd type of funny, and definitely not in line with the Farrelly Brothers’ sensibilities. Imagine instead a double episode of “Fraser” dealing with more complex themes and written by one of the British theatre’s most established and cunning playwrights— and without any David Hyde Pierce.
Director Greg Taubman made a number of smart choices in his production. The first was putting up the show at all. Taubman has already shown a marked commitment to staging demanding and nuanced shows (“Master and Margarita,” and the downright grim “Merrily We Roll Along”) that have actual literary and theatrical heft. The difficulty, however, in staging shows outside of the light comedy and sugar-pop musical categories is they demand considerable talent from the cast, designers and director in order to pull them off with any finesse.
To be frank, American college students, even considering their substantial enthusiasm for the task at hand, are awkward choices to play jaded, contemporary, Baby Boom-busted British intellectuals and professionals. Credibility takes a blow— or this case, a series of gut punches. Ben Mains, playing Henry, has one of those magical theatrical British accents that slips and drifts and, especially at the end of his sentences, vanishes altogether. Amy Widdowson, playing Henry’s first wife, is too irrepressibly vibrant and too Canadian to play the hyper cynical, fifty-something victim of the West End. Her spunk nonetheless is always enjoyable. The two gentlemen (Jon Miller and Arthur Dudney) who play Scots sound like my Uncle Padraig after six Guinesses trying to talk to William Wallace while watching “Braveheart” on the telly. I’m not sure that’s the type of authenticity for which the director was striving.
Bridget Reilly Durkin is the most successful in leaping the considerable hurtles before her and delivering a strong, emotionally resonant performance as Annie, Henry’s lover. Some of the play’s loveliest scenes are due to Durkin’s portrayal of Annie puzzling out her relationship to Henry and the implications of love and bodies growing ever older. Newcomer Chris Arp, as Annie’s cuckolded husband, is also responsible for one of the production’s strongest scenes, confronting his cheating wife with a captivating intensity. Because of her confidence and blue hair, Kassi Jackson does a smashing job of playing Henry and Charlotte’s punkish teenage daughter. Doubtless, acting a character near her own age and cultural moment cements her performance further.
An unfortunate combination of harsh lighting and congested blocking threw many of the key scenes into a tight, one-dimensional show of shouting, shaded side profiles. The set, an alcove of suspiciously wobbly looking Piet Mondrian-inspired panels, seemed on the edge of complete collapse throughout much of the show but did feature some cool-ish changing color effects. But hey, what did old C. S. Lewis say? Bitching is the breastplate of holiness? Whatever. The moral remains the same: “The Real Thing” is a demanding play put on by hardworking actors and an earnest director. The playwright’s brilliance and the players’ enthusiasm show forth in equal measure.
[Performances of The Real Thing run November 4-6 and 11-13 at 8 PM, with a 2 PM matinee on November 13. Ticket prices are $12 general admission; $1 seniors/ faculty/ staff; and $6 students/ children. At Hamilton Murray Theater at Murray-Dodge Hall. Student Events Eligible.]