The real excitement at the opening of The Real Thing was the official announcement that the New Repertory Theatre will be relocating to Watertown, Mass., in time for its twentieth season in the fall of 2003. The New Rep is to become the professional resident theatre in a 380-seat "state-of-the-art" facility to be built as part of a visual and performing arts center in the newly renovated Arsenal on the Charles complex.
Their new digs look to be a far cry from the parish hall of the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, the group's home since 1989. Not only are the ceilings low and the backstage space minimal there, but the belfry clock faithfully tolls the hour and, as happened during the season opener, the rain on stage wasn't a special effect.
According to Artistic Director Rick Lombardo, the new theatre will "give us technical capabilities far beyond what we have now so that our design elements will be on a par with the fine quality of acting we are already noted for."
While most of the acting in this Tom Stoppard favorite is up to usual standards, the production values are not on par with some of our better local community theatres. Ostensibly a straightforward romantic comedy, The Real Thing presents some technical challenges. For starters, the script calls for five different living rooms, one a stylish stage setting and the rest reasonable facsimiles of the real thing shared by various combinations of the four main characters over the course of two years.
Some continuity is required between the trappings of one setting and that of another in order to support one of Stoppard's underlying structural conceits. He was intrigued by the idea of putting different characters into similar situations and watching them behave in different ways. The solution devised by Lombardo and his design team is midway between the lavishly detailed, realistic original London / New York productions and the minimalist approach taken by the recent Donmar Warehouse revival that transferred to the West End and Broadway.
Set designer Janie E. Howland provides two basic sets of walls, doors and carpeted floor that alternate by means of a turntable. This serves to keep the action flowing, but changing the not particularly evocative set dressing is sometimes noisy. The white and brown walls, stark white doors and gray carpet don't give lighting designer Franklin Meissner, Jr., much to work with. I expected more from the set designer who helped pull off Sunday in the Park with George at the Lyric Stage last fall and the IRNE award lighting designer of Moby Dick at the New Rep a year ago.
Stoppard being Stoppard, it isn't enough to put love, fidelity and friendship under the microscope. He also asks us to take a look at: low brow vs. high brow music, why writing about love is embarrassing, the spuriousness of taking a public political stance, digital vs. analog watches and the beauty of a cricket bat.
A few salient details require that the play not be Americanized. Fortunately, of the two principals, Neil Stewart (Henry) is a real Brit and Debra Wise (Annie) a convincing imitation. They fully embody the cerebral playwright trapped by his own pretenses and the engaging actress who encapsulates the best (and worst) of everything being an actress implies. We delight as they struggle to make sense of their situation all the while keeping us guessing about what's real and what's not in their lives and/or work. The other conceit of the play is that Henry, himself, has written some of the scenes. This provides the "and/or" that makes the play so much fun.
Of the rest of the cast, Tommy Day Carey, who plays a young actor infatuated with the much older Annie, is the stand out. He convincingly snares her in real life as well as in productions we see of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and a terrible script Henry stoops to ghostwriting when he's stymied by his inability to write about love, "the real thing."
Fortunately for us, Stoppard was able to. Although later works such as Arcadia and The Invention of Love far eclipse his first take on the subject of love, The Real Thing still provides a refreshing look at the folly of it all.
The Real Thing, now through June 2nd, at the New Rep Theater, 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, Mass. For tickets and further information call the box office at 617-332-1646 (voice and TTY) or email email@example.com. For directions to the theatre visit their website at www.newrep.org.