Saint Sebastian Players’ production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing was* surprisingly quite good. I say “surprisingly”, as, at first glance, the production resembles just another cheap production labeling itself as “black box”. And, in reality, it is another cheap (and strangely fussy) physical production trying to pass itself off as black box. However, strong performances thankfully pull it out of the mess it easily could have been, resulting in a compelling afternoon of theatre. Just another prime example of Chicago’s amazing acting talent. (*Also, I’d say is surprisingly quite good, but the production is no more, alas, as I caught the final performance).
This was my first Stoppard play, and I enjoyed it. (Much more accessible than my recent encounter with another celebrated modern playwrite.) From what I understand, The Real Thing was Stoppard’s response to the criticism that he could only write brainy, politically-driven shows, and was not equipped to explore matters of the heart. As a result, he wrote a story about a stuffy playwright (based on himself) on a quixotic quest for true love — a.k.a. “the real thing”.
As Stoppard’s alter ego Henry, Neal Tucker has his work cut out. It’s a hard character to warm up to: Henry’s a snobbish adulterer who spends most of the play lecturing at others in glib, academic tones. Tucker hits all the right notes, making me ultimately empathize with Henry as he emotionally matures, painfully realizing true love is actually messy and compromising. However, Tucker’s rapid-fire delivery of Stoppard’s articulate language was hard to follow in some key scenes.
As Henry’s love interest, Stephanie Nelson’s Annie makes a beguiling figure. Nelson manages to effectively convey Annie’s strength and fragility in just a single line reading. Its a great leading lady performance — one that makes you completely understand why someone would fall foolishly head-over-heals in love with her. She’s also a well-suited match for Tucker’s Henry as they argue about the merits of a political play Annie wishes to have produced.
While only in the first three scenes, Eric S. Prahl is quite memorable as Annie’s ex-husband, Max. To me, Max is the one person in the play who expresses raw emotion without the artifice of giving a stage performance, and Prahl succeeds in spades. And as Henry’s first wife Charlotte, Renae Stone gives a glare that would only be matched by Bea Arthur’s. She certainly can command a stage. Sophie Amos as Debbie, Henry and Charlotte’s outspoken daughter, is ideal, casually offering advice to her father that seems to knock the wind out of his bloated perspectives on life and love. As Brodie, the political arsonist Annie passionately defends, Andrew Strenk does a good job driving home the point that the passion one feels for a cause or a person can easily be founded on a false, romanticized belief.
Stoppard’s use of the play-within-a-play device establishes the core theme of reality vs. performance — life vs. art. It’s a clever concept that could easily throw a Stoppard newbie off in the first 20 minutes. (Thankfully I did a bit of research prior to curtain.) The staging didn’t help clarify anything in this regard, and the numerous and clunky scene changes were unfortunately a major distraction. I’m not kidding when I say the scene changes alone added 10 minutes to the overall run-time of an already long show.
Overall, strong performances (overcoming a lacking physical production) do Stoppard proud. I’d say go see it, but it’s closed. Instead, go see these two currently running Stoppard classics: