On Stage: Unstoppable Stoppard

REVIEW: Despite flawed Studio production, Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing’ endures.

Teagle F. Bougere (Henry) and Caroline Bootle Pendergast (Charlotte) in “The Real Thing.” (Photo by Scott Suchman)

It’s difficult not to like a play written by Tom Stoppard. He is such a master of the written word that his grocery list would probably make great reading. And that is true of the Studio Theatre production of his play, “The Real Thing.” You can lose yourself in his beautifully written script. What doesn’t work as well is the Studio Theatre production directed by .

Why Muse chose to configure the warmly intimate Milton Theatre into a theater in the round is puzzling. It is also puzzling as to why he decided to have a revolving stage. It should be noted that the revolving stage wasn’t working in the first act when I saw the show. It was working in the second and added nothing but further distraction for the audience.

Stoppard’s play, first produced in 1982, is about relationships among an uptown, sophisticated theater set, who are casually having adulterous relationships and are unsuccessfully confronting the results.

There is in “The Real Thing,” a play within a play. At the beginning of the first act Max, in a solid performance by , confronts his wife, Charlotte, , with his suspicions of her infidelity. Following a tense confrontation, she angrily walks out of their apartment.

In the following scene, we are in the apartment of successful playwright Henry, portrayed with artful self-assurance and cynicism by Teagle F. Bougere and his wife, Charlotte, whose personality has abruptly changed. At first it is confusing, but it soon becomes clear that the first scene was a play and we are now into reality.

Charlotte is unhappy with Henry, the author of the play, because she believes he has written better dialogue for Max than for her. Max comes for a visit with his actress wife Annie, in an uneven performance by . She has been having an affair with Henry.

The second act opens two years later in the apartment of Annie and Henry who are now married. Henry is a man to whom words are more important than a relationship. Annie is attempting to get him to ghostwrite a play for Brodie, a soldier who has been imprisoned for defacing a war memorial. But Henry considers Brodie an oaf who doesn’t understand the beauty of words.

Annie goes off to act in another play in Scotland. When she returns she discovers that Henry has ransacked her room looking for evidence that she has been having an affair with her co-star Billy. We are back where we started. I found unconvincing as Billy, a man capable of attracting sophisticated women who would find him to be an acceptable boy toy.

Tom Stoppard’s words are clearly the reason to see this Studio production. His mastery of the written word, effectively voiced by Henry, is especially poignant in the conversation with his adult daughter on the subject of love. Beyond the obvious cynicism and irony, Stoppard lays bare the conflicting emotions of love and commitment and settling for what, while not desirable, is attainable. Henry started off writing a play about infidelity, but he has learned one can’t be intellectual about the emotional power of love.

The Real Thing” continues through June 30 at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, $39-$82, 202-332-3300 and available here.

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