Too much artificial flavoring in here

Review: It's a shame that a production called `The Real Thing' is full of phony emotions that never really get dealt with.

September 06, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Buzz, buzz, buzz. Whine, whine, whine.

An irritating, high-pitched humming around my ears kept interrupting my efforts to concentrate on Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer. WHAP!

Oops. There goes Henry.

When the main character gets in the way of a play, it's a very bad sign. It happened repeatedly during the Olney Theatre Center production, and while I wasn't wild about the performances or staging, it really wouldn't be fair to blame the actors. The worst that can be said of them is that they didn't rise above the material.

Yes, yes - I know. The Real Thing is the semi-autobiographical play about modern-day love, art and infidelity that won all those Tonys. (It's dedicated to Stoppard's second wife, Miriam Moore-Robinson.) It's the same play that's been wowing audiences for 17 years, the same play that has enthralled every theater critic in America. Except me.

I think Stoppard is best as a playwright of ideas; his most intriguing work tackles such esoteric fare as chaos theory as it applies to English landscape gardening, for instance. But audiences can be put off by intellectual content. The Real Thing has been lauded as Stoppard's most accessible play, and I suspect that embedded in this description is a sigh of relief: Finally, the brilliant playwright has come down to our level. You and I may not have a clue what he's talking about, but for once, neither does he.

That's not to say that the play isn't entertaining. It is. And it's not to say that it doesn't have some great speeches about, say, the difference between high culture and popular art, or whether being unfaithful involves an exchange of cells, or souls. It does. But Stoppard doesn't know how to write about real human beings, and that's a problem in a character-driven play, which is what The Real Thing wants to be.

Henry, a successful English playwright, is an intellectual bully who uses his wit to dominate other people. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Annie, first his lover and then his wife, makes a great show of having political convictions, but in the end they're as decorative and easily removed as wallpaper. Whine, whine, whine.

Both Henry and Annie make a point of never feeling guilt, especially when contemplating infidelity. My most unfavorite line: "Better to tell them ... All right? It's easy ... It's only a couple of marriages and a child. All right?"

When actor Richard Pilcher wants to show us Henry's vulnerable, brooding side, he sighs heavily. Pilcher sighs a lot. He sighs when Henry has writer's block. He sighs over Annie's flirtation with a young actor. He sighs when his 17-year-old daughter leaves home. He even sighs when someone makes a grammatical error.

It's all counterfeit emotion. And in a sense that's the point - The Real Thing is supposed to be about how Henry gradually learns to feel. But by the time Pilcher shows genuine anger and pain toward the end of the second act, it's too little, too late.

Valerie Leonard plays Henry's first wife, Charlotte, with an arch gaiety that undercuts the venom in her words. Their marriage doesn't seem sour as much as it seems dry, like a martini. Perhaps Leonard worried that the audience would hate Charlotte if she didn't tone her down. But if we had seen that character's rage, we might also have seen her wounds.

Stoppard is fascinated by structure, and he put lots of it into The Real Thing. Scenes on stage mirror real-life occurrences, dialogue repeats, and several scenes take place on a train. But director Cheryl Faraone and set designer Hallie Zieselman seem almost oblivious to these parallels. Faraone gives the plays-within-a-play the same tone as the real life scenes, so there's little to help the audience differentiate them. Similarly, Zieselman's realistic interiors don't reinforce the play's architectural complexity.

And the parallels aren't limited to the script. Stoppard's actual marital story, the story on which The Real Thing is based, didn't end happily ever after. He was divorced from Moore-Robinson after his affair with a young actress named Felicity Kendal was exposed.

Kendal's first big success? She originated the role of Annie.

The Real Thing

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Sept. 30.

Admission: $15-$34

Call: 301-924-3400

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