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If you’re a Tom Stoppard fan, your pulse will quicken a bit at Studio Theatre when Henry, the playwright-hero of The Real Thing, heads offstage to find his cricket bat.
Stoppard has quite a lot of clever things to say about language in this play—at one point he has Henry dismiss a snappy locution as “sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it”—but nothing else he’s penned on the topic is half so exhilarating as the long, discursive, cricket bat–referencing soliloquy Henry embarks on when he returns. On Broadway in 1984, Jeremy Irons’ Henry finished the speech to sufficient applause that, had The Real Thing been a musical, it might well have prompted an encore.
This past weekend at Studio, the speech was getting an appreciative but more muted response, and that more or less sums up the effect of the capably performed but oddly uninvolving production as a whole. The Real Thing is a gorgeous piece of dramatic writing, trickily structured, with multiple plays within a play, and actors playing actors who somehow manage to be themselves on stage and someone else entirely at home. It’s conceived as a dissertation not just on the power of language and of theater, but on the nature of love—and it ought, if it’s done well, to take flight early, and stay airborne.
David Muse’s attractively spare mounting, though, is late to soar—the setup feels startlingly flat—and while the production does belatedly achieve liftoff (when Henry says “I don’t know how to write love” in a sequence that effectively establishes that Stoppard does), it keeps drifting back to Earth thereafter. Teagle Bougere’s Henry is so persuasively real at times—blinking mistily through a farewell to his 17-year-old daughter (a spunky Barrett Doss), for instance—that when he’s less so, and lines tumble from his lips as if they’re merely clever dialogue in a play, it’s actively deflating. The others are all capable, and in the case of Annie Purcell as Henry’s passionately political second wife, more than that. Her second-act smackdowns with Bougere, and with Enrico Nassi, who plays a young actor who takes a shine to her, truly are the real thing—emotionally resonant in a way the rest of the evening only aspires to be.