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Stage Review: Lead actors' performances bring to light 'The Real Thing'

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

By Anna Rosenstein

After nearly 20 years of being told that Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" is a romantic comedy, you'd think I'd be more willing to believe it. "The playwright with brains finally shows some heart." That was the Broadway consensus back in 1984. Except you have to look past some sharp fangs and down a dark throat to catch a glimpse of that heart, and when you do, it doesn't look much like a valentine.

 
 
"The Real Thing"

Where: University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre, Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $9-$12. 412-624-PLAY.

   
 

It's true, on the surface there's a love story. Playwright Henry and Annie, an actress, ditch their actor spouses, Charlotte and Max, in the name of true love. Their marriage progresses happily enough until boredom, complacency and infidelity rock the boat.

But there are so many darker themes. Stoppard progresses with an almost symphonic structure. Motifs become visible. Scene structures recur with variations. And in this highly constructed world that moves to rhythms we don't usually see, Stoppard never stops asking, "What is real?"

Some things, Henry acknowledges, like politics and justice, are real only through our perceptions of them. The same can be said of love. As Henry and Annie learn to align their perceptions, Henry has to give up on moral absolutes. He realizes that opposites -- such as pain and joy -- must always coexist. Annie, an innocent in many ways, proves Henry's equal in emotional insight and teaches him that love's dark twin is the power to exact sacrifice.

Then Stoppard clouds things, or rather oversimplifies them, with a too-tidy ending. A laborious subplot (which admittedly gives Stoppard the means to test Henry's theories of love and writing) comes to a quick head. Suddenly, it seems as though all the pieces fall into place, although everything that precedes this moment posits the impossibility of such unity.

In the University of Pittsburgh production, David Kaye's clever scene design illustrates this point. Block cutouts in the upstage wall look like permanently separated puzzle pieces. We can see how they'd fit together but they're spaced like repelling magnets. On the floor, the same shapes are jumbled and overlapped. Any resolution would be accidental, virtually miraculous, definitely fragile and impermanent. Would it be real?

If Matthew J. Kopans' direction is a little light for my taste, it's always deft and sure. The scenes progress with requisite speed, and Kopans materializes Stoppard's structure with subtly recurrent blocking patterns.

A strong cast is led by Matt Gaydos, whose Henry is nothing short of remarkable. He's as adept at capturing Henry's childishness as his sophistication. Long speeches and witty wordplay feel spontaneous. Gaydos gives a performance filled with loss and joy, with conviction and bewilderment. It was moving.

Heather A. Peterson allows Annie to grow, although she doesn't amass the same layers as Gaydos (to be fair, I don't think Annie has Henry's depth). Perhaps even more than Henry, Annie pieces together a real self, and Peterson gives her escalating confidence and resilience.

Patrick Jordan and Bryn Jameson have a lovely opening scene a la Noel Coward, bitchy and refined. Without spoiling any surprises, I'll say that they maintain a whiff of this air even in their more down-to-earth moments.

In three smaller roles, Gina Secen is strongest as Henry and Charlotte's daughter, Debbie. Adam Hinkle has a great look and the carriage to play bratty bad boys like Billy, Annie's brief fling, but his acting is unfocused. Rasheed Ja'far Clark takes Brodie a little over the top. If he were a bit smoother, it'd make Annie seem like less of an idiot for putting any eggs in his basket. That's a lot of folly even if this were a romantic comedy.


Anna Rosenstein is a free-lance drama critic for the Post-Gazette.

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