note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
After celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard’s play, “The Real Thing,” appeared initially in London in 1982 and took the stage by storm, it garnered the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle and Tony awards for Best New Play, and others. It also attracted great stars, including Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski, among others. In 2000, its revival achieved that same success, winning Tonys and more, followed by notable revivals.
Stoppard, a clever wordsmith par excellence, is an observer of social consciousness and a successful architect of the play-within-a-play, weaving fantasy with reality. He fashioned “The Real Thing” after his own marital situation. Like his main character Henry, a middle-aged, well-known playwright, Stoppard’s first marriage to an actress crumbled. He got divorced and married Felicity Kendal, “The Real Thing” star, who, like his main character, Annie, divorced her husband to re-marry.
Stoppard, like Henry, wrote lesser works to pay alimony and remained a devoted father to his children. In both cases, the fictitious and biographical couples reportedly remain happily married.
Because of the play-within-a-play, theatergoers who are unfamiliar with “The Real Thing” are advised to read a plot summary first to avoid confusion, especially during the opening scene featuring fictitious new play, “House of Cards,” in which the husband accuses his wife of infidelity. The scene seamlessly shifts to playwright Henry’s house, where he and his wife, Charlotte, are discussing the play, in which she stars but is unhappy with her role. They’re interrupted when co-star, Max, and his pretty actress wife, Annie, visit. As Charlotte and Max leave the living room, the real-life drama unfolds. “Touch me,” Annie cries, as she and Henry embrace, revealing their affair.
The two couples divorce and Annie and Henry marry. Besides being pretty, talented and exciting, Annie is everything Charlotte formerly was to Henry. She’s also an activist ardently trying to help a Scottish soldier named Brodie, who is imprisoned for burning a memorial wreath during a protest. Brodie wrote a play about his “cause,” which Annie desperately wants to help produce.
The second act opens two years later. While Annie is performing in Glasgow for five weeks, she has an affair with her young co-star, Billy. Meanwhile, Henry visits his ex, Charlotte, and 17-year-old daughter, Debbie, who’s leaving to accompany her touring musician boyfriend. Debbie thinks her dad’s morals and ideals reflected in “House of Cards,” are old-fashioned fluff.
Henry truly loves Annie, and she truly loves Henry, so he helps Brodie by buffing up his play. But when they meet Brodie, who was released from prison early because of overcrowdedness, they realize Brodie’s a selfish, oafish boor.
The play ends happily ever after.
Director-Sound Designer Fogle helms a fine cast here. Joseph O’Meara as Henry is subtly glib, a romantic, whose scenes with talented Sarah Carlin as Annie are touching, and Jennifer Parkos as Charlotte is wonderfully sarcastic and matter-of-fact. Mark O’Donald as nebbish Max,Will Neely as Billy, Audrey Claire Johnson as Debbie and Sebastian Konarski as Brodie round out the cast.
Between scenes, Fogle punctuates the action with appropriate songs, such as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and “I’m A Believer,” while simultaneously defining Henry’s love of pop music, and Annie’s appreciation of classical.Greg Mancuis-Ungaro’s lighting enhances the drama.
Salem Theatre Company is a cozy setting that nicely captures Stoppard’s play. Ruth Neeman’s handsome set easily transforms from a theater stage to two London homes, another in Glasgow, and a train car.
BOX INFO: Two-act play by Tom Stoppard, appearing at The Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem, through Feb. 18: Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Tickets are $22; seniors, $18; students, $12. Visit www.salemtheatre.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 978-790-8546.