Many Americans first heard of Tom Stoppard when Shakespeare In Love, the inventive Oscar-winning film that he co-wrote, captivated audiences across the country a couple of years back. But the funny, rueful and frankly brilliant British writer has been crafting delectable scripts for decades. In 1967 Stoppard became the youngest playwright ever to have a work staged at the Royal National Theatre (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). He continued making a name for himself in theatrical circles with his free-wheeling, intellectual, bawdy comedies, which covered everything from metaphysics to circus acts. In 1982 his vaguely autobiographical romantic comedy The Real Thing stunned audiences in a whole new way: Yes, the script contained all the sexy wit of his earlier works, but it was also a painfully earnest and delicate piece in which the essence of marital commitment and the dark pain of infidelity came into the sort of tack-sharp focus that only a writer of Stoppard's caliber can manage.
In April The Real Thing was revived on Broadway, just in time to earn five Tony Award nominations, reams of glorious reviews and a whole new generation of Stoppard fans. It is our amazing good fortune that we Houstonians get to see what all the fuss is about. The Alley Theatre is offering its own revival of The Real Thing, and though there won't be any big awards in the offing, this fine production revels in all that makes Stoppard grand.
Literary allusions about infidelity abound, from the obvious nod to Othello (in the form of a tale-telling, tawdry hankie) to a more obscure reference to Elizabethan playwright John Ford, who wrote 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. And the speeches, as they usually are in Stoppard plays, are mesmerizing, this time covering wildly disparate subjects, from the "cunning" design of cricket bats and the "sacredness" of words to the genesis of prejudice. All this deep, wide thinking is standard fare for Stoppard, but this script does more than celebrate Western culture and the opulence of the English language. It also explores the very human need to grab and hold onto real love.
The Real Thing
runs through Sunday, June 18, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
The opening, in which Max (John Tyson) learns that he has been cuckolded by his wife, turns out to be a scene from a play written by the famous Henry (John Feltch). Max is simply an actor in Henry's play within the play. Irony glues these scenes together, for we soon discover that the dramatist is having a real affair with Max's actress wife, Annie (Elizabeth Heflin). Annie eventually leaves her husband for Henry; it is at this point that Stoppard pushes his characters into some extraordinary territory. Henry and Annie now must cope with how painful opening the heart to another can be as they move deep into the core of love.
The second act shows us what happens two years later, after the theatrical couple has married and settled down into committed bliss. Writing, acting and loving each other consumes all their time. Annie ends up having to shuttle north to Glasgow to perform. Once there, she meets the young actor who is to play her lover. The meanings begin to multiply rapidly with each scene. When Annie kisses Billy (Jonathan Scarfe), her new actor-paramour, it is difficult to know if she is acting or if the lovemaking is real, which is precisely Stoppard's point. How does one identify the real thing, the real love, apart from all the other relationships that one falls into along the way? And what sort of sacrifices does real love require? What does it mean to be committed? Ultimately, to Stoppard, it comes down to "knowing and being known ... knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face," which in this world requires an enormous heart and the ability to withstand a great deal of pain.
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It is this elegant, almost regal pain that Alley actor Feltch so wonderfully captures in his tall, thin and rakish Henry. In fact, this must be the role Feltch was born to play. Driven by a wicked intelligence and possessing an almost cavalier disdain for those with more ordinary minds, Henry eventually reveals that he is also capable of deep love, self-sacrifice and profound humility. Feltch finds in Henry a man who is astoundingly complex. Even better, Feltch's Henry is also a heartbreaking everyman who needs simply to love and be loved.
Wonderful too is Scarfe's dynamic Billy, Annie's ruggedly poetic actor-lover. Scarfe burns up the stage with his movie-star lustiness. When he unbuttons his shirt, while purring Elizabethan English to Annie, it's enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Heflin's beautiful Annie is smart, energetic and delightfully playful, but sometimes so cold that it is difficult to understand why these men won't let her go. All this comes together not only on Neil Patel's stunning black-and-white set but also under Gregory Boyd's muscular direction, which groups these scenes together with an almost balletic grace.
Elegant, expansive and filled with quietly intelligent observations about human behavior that live in the memory for days, maybe even years, The Real Thing is as true, as real, as art can get.
The Real Thing runs through Sunday, June 18, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, (713)228-8421. $19-$35.