This Thing Called Love

Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing blurs the lines between lies and lust, art and life

Most dramas about modern marriage and infidelity dwell on the clandestine nature of extramarital affairs and the havoc they wreak on everyone involved. Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing picks up where most such tales leave off, delving into what happens after the cheaters have sloughed off their former spouses and lifted the veil of secrecy from their relationship.

Unlike such earlier Stoppard works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties, The Real Thing is at least partly autobiographical. Stoppard's marriage to Dr. Miriam Moore-Robinson, famous in her own right as the author of several best-selling self-help books, ended in divorce when Stoppard had an affair with actress Felicity Kendal. Ironically Stoppard had originally dedicated The Real Thing to Moore-Robinson; Kendal was the first actress to portray Annie in the play.

Drawing upon his own tumultuous experience, Stoppard weaves together themes of love, lust, and the theater in this work, including scenes from other plays about infidelity actual and invented. The Real Thing opens with Max (Heath Kelts) sitting on his living room couch building a house of cards. His wife, Charlotte (Barbara Sloan), comes home from a trip to Switzerland. Out of the blue, Max reveals that he found Charlotte's passport -- implying that she did not go to Switzerland but in fact is having an affair. Charlotte doesn't confirm or deny the accusation, instead handing him a small shopping bag with a souvenir inside as she exits.

Stephen G. Anthony and Pamela Roza keep it real
Stephen G. Anthony and Pamela Roza keep it real
Through February 18 at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.

In the next scene, it quickly becomes apparent that the writer has taken his audience on a journey into Play-Within-a-Play Land. The characters Charlotte and Max are actors who have just performed a scene from a play called House of Cards, of which Charlotte's husband, Henry (Stephen G. Anthony), is the author. Max and his wife, Annie (Pamela Roza), who is also an actress, stop by Charlotte and Henry's apartment for dinner; while Charlotte and Max are in the kitchen chopping vegetables for crudités, Henry and Annie are in the living room feeling each other up and toying with the idea of telling their spouses about the affair right then.

A couple of scenes later, Annie admits the affair to Max. Shortly thereafter Annie and Henry dump their spouses and move in together. Happily ever after? Hardly.

"Loving and being loved is so unliterary," Henry grouses (as a mouthpiece for Stoppard, no doubt). "It's happiness expressed in banality and lust." Yet Stoppard elevates his problematic subject to the level of literature through his adroit use of the play-within-a-play conceit -- which, in less skillful hands, often comes off as hackneyed. In The Real Thing, "real" events are intermingled with scenes from plays in a way that blurs the line between art and life, creating a veritable Alice in Wonderland of actual and imagined infidelities. In their first scene together as a couple, Annie rehearses her role as the sexually frustrated lead in a production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, and Henry helps her go over her lines. His gratuitously unemotional reading stands in stark contrast to their volatile relationship.

Annie goes to Glasgow to play opposite an actor named Billy (Jason Allen) in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. The two portray Annabella and Giovanni, a brother and sister who fall in love; during the course of the rehearsal and performance, Annie and Billy suffer the same fate and begin an affair. Stoppard then refers back to the opening scene, as Annie comes home from Glasgow to find that Henry has ransacked her bedroom, searching for evidence of her unfaithfulness. She drops a small shopping bag with a souvenir in his lap -- just as Charlotte did when playing the unfaithful wife in the opening scene of Henry's play.

Joseph Adler's direction is key to the success of this production. The transition from Henry's relationship with Charlotte to his relationship with Annie is smooth and quick, allowing the play to move into more uncertain and therefore compelling territory: Annie's relationship with Henry and her own struggle with infidelity. The fluid scene changes shift the perspective from a bird's-eye view to an intimate one, creating the feel of a cinematic closeup. Jeff Quinn's economical stage design complements Adler's direction. Several consecutive scenes occur in different locales, and each must be distinctive to complete the panorama that the play-within-a-play constructs. Quinn pulls it off, using the upstage area for a train scene and dividing the rest of the stage into two streamlined, contemporary living rooms.

In a play that boasts as much banter as The Real Thing does, timing is crucial. Anthony, Roza, and Sloan show excellent control of pace and tone. Henry's dialogues with Annie and Charlotte are the heart of the play's success; the actors make the scenes crackle with humor, irony, and frustration. Sloan's sarcastic Charlotte displays a wonderful knack for Stoppard's Oscar Wilde­ish use of the epigram. She tells her unfaithful husband that she too has had a number of affairs throughout their marriage, then meets his shock by wryly commenting, "There are no commitments, only bargains, and they have to be renewed every day."

Even Henry's adolescent daughter (Jennifer Lehr) has her two cents to throw in as she declares: "Exclusive rights is not love; it's colonization." Both mother and daughter can match Henry's wit -- more so than new wife, Annie -- but Annie dominates his emotions.

Annie is a strangely optimistic and frightfully cold-hearted character, but Roza somehow sculpts her in such away that we don't dislike her, even though we believe we should. Early in the play, when she's urging Henry to leave his wife for her, she says matter-of-factly, "It's only a couple of marriages and a child." The alchemy of self-centeredness and passion that Roza conjures works well on stage and creates a strong bond with Henry, who is intellectually more than capable of winning his arguments with her yet continually succumbs to her strong will.

Henry is at once erudite and dorky, arrogant and endearing; Anthony brings just the right amounts of selfishness and sweetness to the role. He defends his craft with a passion: "Words are innocent, neutral, precise. You get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little." Yet he loves corny pop music from the '50s and '60s like "I'm into Something Good" by Herman's Hermits and "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'" by the Righteous Brothers.

Ultimately The Real Thing succeeds because Stoppard never strays from the conventions of theater -- set, dialogue, and action. Revelations are always cloaked in actions, reminding the audience that human relationships are more about what one does than what one says. The "real thing" is real only in the moment in which it occurs. Reality is fluid and always changing. Betrayal is as real as love. And yet, for as much as this work rejects society's preconceived mores, The Real Thing is no manifesto of moral relativism. These characters treat one another quite shabbily and must deal with the consequences of their actions yet continue to hold out hope that real love and real art are out there somewhere.

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