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The Real Thing: When words are more real than actions
Vortex Theatre

Also see Rob's review of The Music Man


Matthew Van Wettering and Stephanie Ann Landers
Tom Stoppard, the most cerebral of contemporary playwrights, makes language, as a reviewer in the Guardian noted, that turns cartwheels and summersaults. In 1982, after two decades of intellectual stardom, Stoppard decided to write about passion rather than prosody, real emotions, real deeds and real lives rather than their cranial echoes. The result was The Real Thing, in which a middle-aged playwright loves and longs, cries and despairs but can't avoid encasing his emotions in a Saran Wrap of verbal pyrotechnics. "You may have all the words, but having all the words is not what life's about," the playwright Henry is instructed by his traduced best friend Max.

Albuquerque's courageous, often edgy Vortex Theatre is currently taking on the redoubtable challenge of reviving this play that the New York Times called "not only Mr. Stoppard's most moving play, but also the most bracing play that anyone has written about love and marriage in years."

Despite all the "real" things with which Stoppard, ably abetted by director Lett Kitts, has infused this very British play, it still seems to this American ear to be light on "real" emotion and heavy on the the kind of mean, mordant, supercilious wit that passes for comedy on the British stage. A New York critic said of a recent revival of The Real Thing that the audience was more affected by the language than by the characters that spoke it. This seems to me to be the perfect parsing of this fascinating play's strength and weakness.

From the opening seconds of the play, what is and is not "real" is seldom clear. The action commences with a confrontation between Max and Charlotte, waging war over marital infidelity. Later it becomes obvious that they were actually acting out roles in a play written by Max's friend Henry. Yet the scene has "real" life parallels, for shortly afterward, Max's wife Annie leaves him and moves in with Harry while Harry's wife Charlotte moves out. (The easiest way to keep track of who is living with whom is to watch the checked robe. Three characters wear it.)

The pattern of confusing the real and the unreal is thus set and continues throughout the comedy's two acts. And this is indeed a comedy, in which emotional trauma occurs and recurs but always seems resolvable, if not without considerable difficulty.

Although I find Stoppard's characterizations emotionally distancing, I ended up liking this play in many ways for its layered, textured take on the dilemmas posed by love. What I particularly liked was some of the performances, most notably that of Matthew Van Wettering as the playwright Henry, who is the cynosure of the play, the stage and the audience every second that we see him. It is a commanding role. Henry not only stands in for Stoppard; in many key respects, he is Stoppard, a writer cursed by his own brilliance, verbal dexterity, and intellectual range who struggles to humanize not only his characters but himself.

Ultimately we have to ask, what is "the real thing"? Perhaps the words we use are, after all, more real than the emotions that they stand in for.

The two women in Henry's life, Charlotte (Pip Lustgarten) and Annie (Stephanie Ann Landers), are studies in contrasts, the former glacial, tough and distant, the latter cute, emotional, flirtatious but surprisingly resilient. Skilled performances allow these women to be foils for Henry without losing their inviolable individuality and significance.

Scott Bryan depicts Max as the anti-Henry, an actor who allows himself visibly to show pain and pathos. One of the fine ironies of the play is in the second act as the arch and arrogant Henry is reduced to resembling the Max for whom he has shown nothing but contempt. Sage Hughes as Debbie, Isaac Christie as Billy, and Rhett Butler as Brodie complete the cast.

Brodie is an army private who is imprisoned for burning down a war memorial, and Billy enacts the role of Brodie in a play written by Brodie and rewritten by Henry. If all that sounds convoluted and incestuous, it isn't the half of it, but the eventualities will have to await your seeing the production, which I strongly urge you to do.

Henry, who speaks the most words in this play, finally utters its valedictory: "I don't think that writers are sacred, but words are." As a writer myself, I couldn't agree more.

The play continues at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque through August 16, 2015, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations or more information go to www.vortexabq.org or call 505-247-8600.


Photo: Christy Lopez

--Wally Gordon



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