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The thing is very real at Stage West. Stoppard is the divine wordsmith; music works as cosmic intensifier. If music be the food of love….
So, what is it we want so desperately from love? The real thing. The real thing. In 1982, Tom Stoppard’s thoughtful comedy The Real Thing took critics and audiences by complete surprise, inspiring this critical headline “Stoppard as We Never Knew He Could Be”. When it opened on Broadway in 1984, it received greater acclaim than anything he’d written since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Nobody could quite believe the highbrow Mad Hatter-style wordsmith master of plot inversion and hidden allusion could/would actually write a play about a subject so ordinary as falling in love. And have it fly straighter to the heart of things than Cupid’s arrow zings from his bow? Asked in a 1984 Vogue Magazine article why he wrote about love and if The Real Thing with its playwright protagonist was autobiographical, Stoppard responded thus: “It’s a kind of game. You write about a parallel world…a parallel possibility. This is how it might be if it would be….There’s always a precipice, but some couples know it’s there. It’s just what keeps them together is stronger than what tends to separate them.” The article goes on to say, “”Frank Rich in The New York Times was incoherent with approval; Clive Barnes in the New York Post pointed out that one doesn’t make a buck’s fizz with Dom Perignon, and The Daily News’ Douglass Watt called Jeremy Irons (as Henry) ‘a new matinee idol – the real thing.’”
I fall into the Frank Rich/ Douglass Watt response categories. After experiencing the superb production running at Stage West through April 29 and delving into my normal contextual research for my review, I find myself awestruck by the majestic purity of the work and the scintillating genius of its prose. Witnessing the Stage West production left me tingling head to toe with sheer joy for three hours after. Director Jim Covault’s ensemble carries its passion and dreams, its betrayal and disillusionment, wafting about the playing space to exquisite crescendo with inspired rock and classical music accompaniment, the occasional 60’s pop ditty.
Chuck Huber gives a flawless, inwardly driven, infuriatingly reserved, yet completely heartfelt performance as the play’s elite protagonist Henry, whose only plebeian ‘flaw’ is an uncommon passion for 60’s pop music ballads. Central to the play’s arc but often peripheral in scenes, Huber’s Henry carries the audience along firmly but gently, almost cradling them in his arms, as he sallies forth on love’s odyssey and learns the rites of sacrifice that love requires. Covault’s direction keeps Henry upstage and slightly remote much of the play, often seated at his writing desk, reflecting his directorial understanding of the quiet revelation path playwright Stoppard had in mind and allowing the audience to actively seek out personal connection with Henry, as a fresh, new lover might. Huber possesses that sensitive yet casually masculine air of “matinee idol” that Jeremy Irons must have exuded in his Broadway portrayal; I wonder if Irons matched Huber’s reflectively patrician line interpretation and delivery and mastered Henry’s subtle yet defining personal transition as well, a proud man who adapts and makes real sacrifice for love. For my money, after watching Chuck Huber’s full-blown, articulate, eminently human portrayal of Henry, he is the strongest leading man performing on the North Texas stage today.
Belief in love functions at the play’s core. If the audience sniffs a hokey, hammy delivery or doubts the sincerity of each character’s feelings, this play would bomb. Dana Schultes’ Annie falls deeply in love with Henry, as the audience must also do with her. A sunny, energetic actor, Schultes brings genuine warmth and directness to her role, the most wise, mature performance I’ve seen her give to date. Director Covault allows her prolonged moments of still, incandescent contemplation on stage; Schultes reveals as much about Annie’s heart in this stillness as in her dialogue. And the spare simplicity of her wise, calm voice charms the audience and helps affirm why Henry adores her.
Emily Scott Banks gets to deliver the balance of the play’s rapier-sharp bon mots with eye-flashing candor and goddess-wise timing as Henry’s jilted first wife Charlotte, She’s as well-matched a stylish marital sparring partner as any effete, sophisticated, celebrated author could want, just not the person he loves. Mikaela Krantz rounds out their family with plucky self-confidence as daddy’s little headstrong woman-girl daughter, embarking on a fresh romantic adventure with an uncouth, never seen chap. Heaven to see a stage peopled with women as powerful, interesting and motivated as its men….
Three other male characters flesh out the play, secondary only in their structural orbit around the core romance. Andy Baldwin reveals a marvelous level of superb interpretive skill and raw acting talent as Max, Annie’s betrayed husband. Known widely for his Marx Brothers-like imaginative comic performance, his Max’s devastated, gut-wrenching implosion when Annie confesses she is leaving him reveals a hidden reservoir of potential in Baldwin as a dramatic actor. Not maudlin or soap opera hyped in the least, Baldwin’s honest portrayal of Max enlivens Stoppard’s script exquisitely, shows exactly what can happen when love shrugs off cold from the romance dance. Joshua Buehler’s achingly handsome 20 something actor Billy exudes youthful, lusty adoration to the hilt. Easy distraction for Annie, a vivid wake-up call for Henry. Eric Dobbins’ glowering, boorish Brodie epitomizes the sort of lower class, sullen, ungrateful playwright Henry disdains but learns to accept as part of the price to keep Annie’s love.
Smooth yet energized, Director Covault’s cast illustrates Stoppard’s themes with ease and demonstrates masterful delight in his erudition. Director and cast clearly understand the playwright’s belief expressed in a 1970 BBC radio interview that “… a theatre’s job is to prevent people from leaving their seats before the entertainment is over.” Stage West’s The Real Thing will make a believer out of any reluctant skeptic. Whet your romantic appetite with the score – some of the most evocative tunes written reinforce the mood throughout, from Bach to The Moody Blues, Procol Harum to Maria Callas aria. Set changes can take too long and are clumsy at times, but this production is The One to see. It’s genuine. It’s the real thing.
www.stagewest.org 817-784-9378 Through April 29, 2012
Quotes from American Vogue Magazine, issue 174, March, 1984. Joan Juliet Buck, author