note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Max … Matthew Boston
Charlotte … Meg Gibson
Henry … Rufus Collins
Annie … Kate Nowlin
Billy … William Thompson
Debbie … Pepper Binkley
Brodie … Adam Saunders
Tom Stoppard’s THE REAL THING begins with a house of cards in what turns out to be a house of mirrors, endlessly reflecting upon itself and its creator. Mr. Stoppard dedicated his comedy to his then-wife while being involved with and inspired by his leading lady, inviting comparisons with his playwright-protagonist Henry, married to his current leading lady Charlotte and having an affair with Annie, the actress-wife of Max, Charlotte’s leading man. Henry and Annie divorce their spouses, marry, and pursue a love more “real” than their former marriages only to learn through further infidelity as well as artistic differences over a play by a Scottish prisoner that the road to the “real thing” is a rocky road, indeed. THE REAL THING goes on longer than it should, for starters (on the night I attended the audience heartily applauded the second to the last scene, mistaking it for the final one; come to think of it, this would be a different play should that last scene be dropped….and a moving one), and the Pirandellian inserts are more turns than revelations but Mr. Stoppard, often too cerebral for his own good, warms up enough to offer some glimpses into his own friendly-shy heart.
The Huntington production is the Boston season’s first Stoppard offering in what promises to be a Stoppard year and may it also offer a lesson to other companies on how dull and talky Mr. Stoppard becomes when his surface is polished rather than dug into (a director must/should view human speech as what floats up from the subconscious rather than as civilized utterances taken at face value). But Evan Yionoulis, who made the company’s 36 VIEWS dazzle and glide around a hollow center, wraps the evening in Huntington good taste and Broadway slickness --- Mr. Stoppard isn’t given a chance to earn his keep, here, but arrives prepackaged for his Anglophiles. Much of the production’s problem lies in Rufus Collins’ Henry: in brief, Mr. Collins does not convince as a playwright. I once quoted Max Beerbohm’s suggestions on how to portray a writer, onstage; I quote him, once again: “Though writers have no hall-mark on their appearance, they do acquire, through practice of their art, a rather distinctive manner. Accustomed to express themselves through a medium wherein there is no place for gesture, or play of features, or modulation of the voice, they become peculiarly passive in their mode of conversation. Obliged in their work to dispense with such adventurous aids, they lose the power to use them in their off moments.” Add to that a writer’s preference for his own inner world rather than the noisy, uncontrollable one around him and THE REAL THING takes on a rare poignancy as Henry must reach out to Annie as man and lover, not as playwright, in order to hold onto her. The role calls for an actor who can be compelling in his reticence --- instead, Mr. Collins is hyper and kvetchy and plays in sitcom’s corner. He is attractive and likeable, even endearing, but those fingers have never touched a keyboard nor known a writer’s solitude.
Kate Nowlin’s Annie is another matter, altogether, being ripe and fresh-scrubbed and with strawberry-blonde hair ever in disarray; she fleshes out the script whenever she appears (but, then, she is an actress playing an actress.) Mr. Collins and Ms. Nowlin leave few barriers in the way of their hugs and kisses but had Mr. Collins caught Henry’s nature his lovemaking would have been more tentative, guarded; a portrait of an artist with one foot in, one foot out of his shell. The others are equally good --- and, as directed, equally slick and tasteful --- though William Thompson seems too old as the juvenile actor who seduces Annie; either that, or Ms. Nowlin is too young for Mr. Thompson.
Kris Stone’s lofty grey-and-white set breaks apart and rearranges itself throughout the evening as if it had a mind of its own, providing some welcome visuals to all the talk talk talk.