UPDATEDThe Real Thing: Infidelity, Relationships and How Much to Give

Editor's note: The run for The Real Thing has been extended through October 6.

The set-up:

The Real Thing, the 1982 play from Tom Stoppard, has won two Tony Awards, in 1984 as Best Play, and in 2000 as Best Revival. It explores two contemporary marriages and a third relationship, as an adulterous affair blossoms into something more. It is filled with wit, intellectually rich ideas, and powerful, visceral emotions. This revival is presented by Main Street Theater, which had mounted its Houston premiere in 1986.

The execution:

The central question posed by the playwright - among many - is the relevance of monogamy - is the demand for exclusivity of love a tenable position in the contemporary world? That query may be even more relevant today than that it was 30 years ago.

Stoppard is noted for his wit, and wordplay, and the script sparkles with luminous examples, but this is not an arid intellectual exploration but instead a stunning tale of Henry, a warrior playwright (much like Stoppard himself), who battles for a level of literacy in theater, and who has deeply-rooted beliefs as to what the contract of a relationship entails. These beliefs are challenged, vividly, and Henry must choose between pragmatic compromise or emotional loss.

Joe Kirkendall portrays Henry, and gives a remarkable, nuanced performance that is letter-perfect, captivating in its authenticity and refreshing in the vigor he brings to the role. Henry is married to Charlotte (Sara Gaston) as strong-willed as he, beautiful, and an actress starring in one of Henry's plays. They are friends with Max (Justin Doran), an actor also in the play, and his wife Annie (Shannon Emerick). We see the extraordinary acting range of Doran, as we are given a scene from the play, where he portrays a cynical, emotionally sadistic husband, and then meet him "offstage", where he turns out to be pleasant, gracious and charming, civilized and able to correct his host firmly but politely.

Gaston as Charlotte meets this elevated level of performance, and has a rapier way with exit lines as well as deadpan wit. Emerick as Annie has a more complex role, and sails through it with brisk aplomb, finding her youthful appeal, her steel spine, and her willingness to battle for her own views. The play is directed by Main Street Theater's artistic director, Rebecca Greene Udden, and she has forged a winning ensemble that adds muscle to ideas, style to emotions, and that carries us along on wings of thought, borne by the winds of an active mind searching for truth.

There are three other characters: Debbie, the late-teens daughter of Max and Charlotte, ably played by Shannon Nicole Hill; Brodie, a jailed activist played by David Clayborn, who captures the desired loutish behavior; and Billy, an actor played by Scott Gibbs, who brings the required boyish charm and physical charisma to his role. All are good, but hardly need to be onstage, as their plot inputs could be relayed second hand. Their physical presence is not necessary, and the play might be even stronger without them.

The set changes really require a turntable, unreasonable to expect, but four black-clad stage hands perform location changes as effectively as possible. In addition to the tedium of these interruptions, the only flaws were some clandestine smooching that seemed too likely to be discovered, and Henry not knowing the answer when asked by Annie what a "petard" was - since the word is employed for a critical plot twist in Hamlet, Henry would indeed know it.

Interestingly enough, the play is about infidelity, but it is not about physical passion, nor is it really about love, though the word is worn smooth by use in this play. Instead, it is about relationships, how much to give in exchange for companionship and a bedmate. We should be grateful to Stoppard for this rich and rewarding play, to Main Street for bringing it to us, and to the director and the brilliant cast for reminding us just how excellent theater can be. The verdict:

Humor is abundant as a brilliant cast brings muscular ideas to life, and stunning performances add polish and exuberance to a battle of wits, and of conflicting beliefs. The Real Thing continues through September 29 October 6 at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact www.mainstreettheater.com.

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