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The Real Thing — Wilma Theater

Real Thing == interior Tom Stoppard is always on a quest for the precise, for the genuine.

His plays deal with the corruption of philosophy, journalism, education, scholarship, scientific application, literature, romance, politics, and the idea of love. Stoppard likes exposing the falseness, hypocrisy, systemization, expediency, rationalization, and sophistry that bring about reverse alchemy, changing something pure into something compromised, usually with the consent of those who foment, accept, or live with the corruption, those who cause or recognize what has happened and is happening, as opposed to the majority that just follows along believing the way things are are the way things should or must be.

In his 1982 play, “The Real Thing,” Stoppard examines honesty in writing and in marriage. His lead character’s quest is to determine and create the real thing in both. His analogy is a cricket bat. Henry, a playwright whose works are popular and respected enough to earn him a guest spot as the celebrity on a British radio favorite, “Desert Island Disks,” wants to demonstrate to his second wife, Annie, the difference between fine writing and diatribe. He takes a cricket bat from a closet and points out that it is made of several layers of a particular wood, that the effect of the layering is the same as the spring that protects dancers’ feet on a stage floor, a property that provides balance and bounce, equal and opposite physical reaction that makes the bat suited to its purpose. The cricket bat has evolved. It has been engineered to be perfect for its intended use. It is not a random plank or paddle. It cannot be manufactured haphazardly and be regarded as a cricket bat. It is the real thing.

Henry is the one who struggles most with the real thing and a desire to satisfy its demanding requirements. He knows the populist movie scripts he writes are practical necessities to cover alimony and maintain his and Annie’s lifestyle. He wants his own writing, the plays he conceives from his imagination to his satisfaction, to have the craft, depth, and entertainment value of a well-made cricket bat. A scene we see from one of Henry’s plays, ‘The House of Cards,’ shows Henry’s talent and the work he has do to be the writer he envisions as the real thing.

Marriage is a more complex and difficult matter to perfect. For one thing, it involves another person with his or her opinions, decisions, probity, morality, and perception of the real thing. For one who strives for the ‘real’ as much as Henry does, the best he can ask for is honesty from himself and his spouse and a sense that the woman he has chosen for his wife is a woman he loves to exclusion of all others and who he wants as a partner no matter what issues or obstacles arise to muddy his penchant for perfection.

Henry is always looking for and trying to apply reason. His first marriage went sour because his wife, Charlotte, was too cynical and too free-wheeling, and because Henry found more of the partner he could love in Annie, who, like Charlotte, is an actress. He also tries to reason with his daughter, Debbie, when he thinks she is mistaking adventure for freedom and the bloke of the moment for a true partner.

Henry doesn’t try to control. He only speaks his mind and aims towards the ideal, in his case the most real and honest situation he can find. He is not flawless. Henry can be pompous and pedantic. He can be snobby. He can even resort to being fake or dishonest, as when he attempts to select eight classical pieces as the music he would want with him if he was stranded on a desert island while his actual musical taste leans towards early pop like The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Henry is willing to deceive to impress the “Desert Island Disks” audience with his sophisticated taste in music, but to his credit, when we hear him listening to the show, Herman’s Hermits and The Monkees — really The Monkees — come over the radio in lieu of Bach or Schubert. In the end, Henry can be counted on to do the right thing, the real thing.

The Wilma Theater  is fortunate to have Kevin Collins, an actor who grasps Henry’s probing intellect and bent towards honesty at all costs, in the lead role of its production of “The Real Thing,” which runs through June 22.

Collins brings out Henry’s wit while showing what a keen observer he is and being adroit at controlling or unleashing Henry’s disdain as it arises. The actors lets you see the tension that is constant between Henry and Charlotte, even when they are five-years divorced, and the bond that exists between Henry and Annie. He conveys the distance between Henry and Debbie, in whose life he has been pretty much an absentee since his split with Charlotte, yet gives Henry a fatherly tone when he has wisdom to impart and advice he believes Debbie must hear.

Collins’s is a complete and detailed performance that captures Stoppard’s intention for “The Real Thing” and keeps the Wilma staging lively and interesting.

This is harder work that one may think, especially with “The Real Thing,” one of Stoppard’s more straightforwardly accessible plays that doesn’t have sequences in which knowledge of physics, mathematics, or poetry pays dividends.

That’s because David Kennedy’s production for the Wilma has a tendency to sprawl and become a tad cookie-cutter until Collins brings it some focus, as do Suzy Jane Hunt as Annie and Brian Ratcliffe as Billy, a randy young actor with whom Annie co-stars in a Glasgow production of Ford’s “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.”

Kennedy has set his “The Real Thing” in what looks like a combination of rehearsal space and green room, a place where actors congregate and wait between their appearances. The plain floor, sometimes adorned with a carpet, is marked for the places actors will stand, and furniture will go. Characters are not confined to a specific space. In the scene in which Henry goes for his cricket bat, he leaves what we have accepted as the room where he and Annie are speaking and heads off towards what would normally be an off-stage closet but is totally visible on Marsha Ginsberg’s set at the Wilma. Kennedy and Ginsberg have effectively removed a fourth wall, but rather than it being the one between the audience and the stage, it’s the one between the playing area and what would usually be the wings and backstage. The construct is at first a bit off-putting, but once you get used to it, it doesn’t matter at all, positively or negatively. If Kennedy was playing off of Stoppard’s play-within-a-play idea, his use of the Wilma stage became too routine for his concept to register.

Kennedy and his cast realize “The Real Thing” but don’t endow it with the patina of importance or that sense that you’re watching something special I’ve experienced every other time I saw or read Stoppard’s play, particularly the 2000 Donmar Warehouse revival that came to Broadway with Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane. Though Henry, Annie, Charlotte, and all around them are articulate people, self-possessed adults of the kind you rarely see in American plays, they seem routine. They are actors, writers, and activists, but their lives seem mundane. One of the points is to show talented, creative people in their private lives, but nothing about this group excites. Kennedy’s production remains storytelling without becoming personal or poignant. Only Collins breaks through and presents a fully dimensional person who affects us at more than a dramatic level, more than as a character in a play. Only Collins brings his character into a deeper, more complete focus, in a way that makes us want to share his thoughts and ideas with him and take what he says and feels into consideration.  Brian Ratcliffe also takes Billy beyond the page and gives him personality that makes the contrast between him and Henry, or even him and Annie, human and palpable. But Billy is a functional character who helps illustrate what Stoppard is telling us but  isn’t at the core of it. Others in the cast, especially Hunt, are all fine, but they don’t create the intensity or sense of brilliance “The Real Thing” generally musters.

During the first act of Kennedy’s production, I kept thinking something was missing. By intermission I couldn’t put my finger on what it was I thought the staging lacked, what was keeping me from getting involved in this telling of Stoppard’s play or, at the least, causing me to appreciate it from a distance.

Early in the second act, when Henry is talking about the act of writing, the distinction between the fantasy bilge he does for money as opposed to what he composes for art, the reason why he may be too close to Annie to write a romantic script in which she can star, and the difference between his careful composition and attention to honesty versus the maunderings of an amateur who puts his words in ink and calls it drama, more facets of Kennedy’s staging came to light. I saw that Kennedy was concentrating more on Henry’s writing than on Henry and Annie’s marriage, or marriage in general, as the theme. Crucial moments or discussion in the marital lives of Henry, whether with Annie or Charlotte, and of Annie, whether with Henry or her first husband, Max, are handled a bit like chess play or a card game. They come off as scenes from a play rather than as bits from life.

The distancing I felt is built into Kennedy’s production. But Stoppard is not aiming at distance. He wants to show the fragility of intimacy, especially when it’s clear Henry and Annie are the real thing. At the Wilma, Annie’s scenes with Billy are entertaining because Ratcliffe is so animated and varied. They should be heartbreaking because of what they mean in terms of Henry’s trust in Annie, but they don’t quite manage that.  Karen Peakes gives bite to a second act confession about all the times she was unfaithful to Henry and should sting the audience to the quick when she says her straying was mostly in fun and that she resented Henry’s dalliance with Annie because she could see the emotion and affection in their affair that she wasn’t getting from anyone, including Henry, but Kennedy has already left Charlotte in the dramatic dust as a character. It’s too late for Peakes to give Charlotte traction or regain her  place on the audience’s interest chart. Kennedy’s concentration is on Henry as an individual, not the total population of “The Real Thing” as a group. Collins, with his excellent performance that conveys the human failings but superiority of Henry, abets in this, but it is Kennedy who makes the Wilma’s “The Real Thing” into the study of one character’s personality at the expense of a richer, more satisfying look into what makes a relationship into the real thing.

Kennedy’s “The Real Thing” is a shadow of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” meaning it’s a few levels shy of being the real thing at all.

Like Henry trying to write a role for Annie, I have had a difficult time wrapping my head around this review and articulating what I see as limiting in David Kennedy’s production at the Wilma. I did not have a bad time at the theater. I enjoyed watching the play. I thought everyone in the cast did a creditable job. The play within a play that constitutes the first scene set up the right amount of surprise needed for the second scene, Charlotte’s funny and telling admonition that Henry gave the male character in “The House of Cards” the better lines because he’s egotistic, and the male character represented him. But I wasn’t finding a theatrical or thematic heartbeat, and I didn’t glean one until the top of the second act when Collins, in the cricket bat scene, made something click that was absent.

Perhaps I know “The Real Thing” too well and want a production to encompass all Stoppard put in the play, all that was apparent when Felicity Kendal and Roger Rees did it in 1982,when Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons played it in 1984, and when Ehle and Dillane reprised it in 2000. (Ewen McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Cynthia Nixon are set to star in the Roundabout production on Broadway next season.) The Wilma production was done in watercolors. It engaged, but it didn’t engross or give the impression important matters were being broached. I felt neither the might of Stoppard’s artistry nor a need to care about any character beyond Kevin Collins’s Henry.

Collins was commanding in the lead role. He could get into the adult soul of Henry and convey his intellect and grasp of standards as well as his sense of humor and clarity of reading a situation.

Suzy Jane Hunt is a likeable Annie. Her ardor when you realize she and Henry are a couple is fun to see. She also conveys a woman who is not afraid to speak up to her husband, whether it’s to taunt him into writing something for her or to defend her interest in a political prisoner whose crime Annie witnessed and for which she takes some responsibility. You believe Hunt as a working actress and see how, despite her commitment to Henry, she may succumb to the relentless wooing  by Billy. Hunt’s is a natural performance that does Annie credit but doesn’t establish her as an equal to Henry in terms of the focus Kennedy puts on his characters.

Karen Peakes brings out the cynicism and acidity in Charlotte. She loves Henry but is more intent on teasing him about his flaws, his ego, and his indifference as a father than she is in listening to him or bringing him up to snuff. Charlotte and Henry’s marriage is more of a habit than an evolving concern, and Peakes plays Charlotte as being settled and relatively content, if carping, about her status quo, both during and after her marriage to Henry.

Brian Ratcliffe is a spunky Billy. He is boyish and carefree and uninhibited in the way he approaches Annie about taking the love they’re playing onstage more seriously offstage.

Ratcliffe also has fun doing classical lines from “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and tripe from the screenplay Henry fashions from a play written by the political prisoner Annie supports, Brodie.

Harry Smith impresses with the arrogance and engrained disrespect he conveys in his short scene as Brodie, whose boorishness opens Annie’s eyes to the convict’s true character and confirms Henry’s opinion from the get-go.

Dan Hodge bring out Max’s vanity and is particularly good in the scene where he scoffs at Henry’s  “Desert Disk” options, classical and pop.

Hannah Gold rounds out the Wilma cast as Debbie, played in the 1984 production by Cynthia Nixon, who next fall, takes the role of Charlotte on Broadway.

Marsha Ginsberg’s open set was designed well but may have inadvertently contributed to our consciousness that “The Real Thing” is a play and not a look at characters’ lives. I liked the orderliness of the backstage organization, but would have preferred a more realistic approach to Stoppard’s material.

Emily Rebholz’s costumes always suited the character and the moment. Thom Weaver’s lighting was always bright, in keeping with Kennedy’s concept that we are watching a play and not witnessing lives being lived. Nick Kourtides’s sound design was admirable considering all of the music cues he had to follow as Henry listened to everything from “The Skater’s Waltz” to “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

“The Real Thing” runs through Sunday, June 22 at the Wilma Theatre, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, June 18. No 7:30 show is set for Sunday, June 22. Tickets range from $68 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by going online to www.wilmatheater.org.

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One comment on “The Real Thing — Wilma Theater

  1. Pingback: The Real Thing -- Wilma Theater | Tinseltown Times

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