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STAGE REVIEW : MARRIAGE AND LOVE AND ‘THE REAL THING’

Times Theater Critic

Love--the real thing--is two people standing in a room and realizing that they are essential to one another.

This is the final determination of “The Real Thing” at the James A. Doolittle Theatre, and playwright Tom Stoppard seems a little apologetic to have come to such a commonplace conclusion, in much the mood of the young woman in his play who brings vegetables to a Sunday at-home rather than flowers.

But there we are. Home truths can be banal. All that an author can do is to write a non-banal play around them, and this Stoppard has done. “The Real Thing” has wit, surprise and characters you care about, and the Mark Taper Forum’s Rep Six company, in residence at the Doolittle, reads it well even when they don’t live it. If you like plays written in full sentences, you’ll like “The Real Thing.”

Without spoiling its surprises, the reviewer can say that not every scene in “The Real Thing” is what it seems to be, including the first one. Stoppard’s characters are theater people, professional makers of scenes, and some of these scenes get swept into the play.

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But Stoppard’s characters know the difference between theater and real life. Real life is messy. It takes a little while to see who the chief characters are, but we eventually settle on Henry (Michael Gross), a clever man who writes plays, and Annie (Linda Purl), a not-terribly-clever woman who acts in them.

Henry and Annie are married to other people at the start of the play, whom they traduce (watch the signals in the vegetable-dip scene) so as to be with one another. They are happy for a time, but temptations ensue for Annie, and Henry finds himself in the highly unoriginal role of cuckold. Finally, they see that their marriage is, for better and worse, the real thing.

Don’t fear that the play in performance is anywhere near that simple. The plot has all sorts of turns; the dialogue is as keen as it always is in a Stoppard play; there are subsidiary characters to keep track of (Annie’s first husband, Henry’s first wife, their teen-age daughter, the soldier that Annie is trying to get out of prison), and Henry and Annie’s path isn’t foreordained--they get there honestly.

Indeed, “The Real Thing” is such an ample play that it’s possible to forget that it does have a central action. In the writing, this seems to be Henry’s discovery that life--the real thing--hurts. In performance, however, at least at the Doolittle, it’s Annie’s play.

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That may have something to do with the actors involved. Gross delivers Henry’s intellectual cadenzas nicely, and knows what to do toward the close of the play when Henry is obviously in pain. But up to then it’s a bland Americanized portrayal, with far too much in common with Gross’ work on NBC-TV’s “Family Ties.” Whatever Henry is, he is not a nice, boyish guy in loafers who wants everybody to love everybody, and that’s what we’re getting here.

Ah, but Purl. She knows where Annie was born, where Annie shops, what Annie likes for lunch and what Annie is thinking at every minute of the story. And we know these things, simply from looking at her. For example, we know what she’s feeling on the train to Glasgow, when a younger actor (Tony Goldwyn) starts flirting with her--amused, slightly unsettled, slightly intrigued. Not that she would do anything about it, but what if?

Henry has a brilliant speech about just such flirtations later in the play. Purl gives us the thing itself, while doing very little visible “acting” at all. We also notice that while others in the play keep flashing their British accents like calling cards, Purl is simply an Englishwoman with something on her mind.

That’s acting. We also get it from Dakin Matthews as Annie’s first husband. He does happen to be a chap who wants everybody to love everybody, and when he finds out Annie is seeing someone else, his heart rips in two. One of Stoppard’s points is that deep emotion, alas for clever playwrights, tends to be inarticulate. Matthews makes the point, again without overmaking it.

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At such moments, the audience lives the story. It would be nice if there were more of them. But at all times in Gordon Davidson’s production we at least listen to the story, laughing when one of the characters scores a point (being Stoppard characters, everybody scores at least one) and enjoying the general literacy of the thing. There is something to be said for plays about “infidelity among the architect class.” At least they do it with style.

We also can argue with the play. It seems unfair of Stoppard to arrange it so that Henry’s wife (Kate Mulgrew) is later seen to have been cheating on him with more frequency than he cheated on her. This doesn’t really take Henry, who professes to believe in full commitment to one’s partner, off the hook.

Indeed, Henry’s belief in himself as “the last romantic” seems mostly a matter of words--he has no problem squashing his women when he wants to score a point off them. Still it’s an exhilarating play, and a superbly designed one, with David Jenkins’ sets and Robert Blackman’s costumes reminding us how quickly people’s lives can change in two years. “The Real Thing” will play in rep with Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” through July 12.

‘THE REAL THING’

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Tom Stoppard’s play, presented by the Mark Taper Forum’s Repertory Six company at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Director Gordon Davidson. Set David Jenkins. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Sound Daniel Birnbaum. Production coordinator Frank Bayer. Production stage manager Jonathan Barlow Lee. Stage managers Arlene Grayson and James T. McDermott. With Kate Mulgrew, Diana Douglas, Julianna McCarthy, Michael Gross, Linda Purl, Dakin Matthews, George Delroy. Plays in repertory with “Hedda Gabler” through July 12. 1615 N. Vine St. (213) 410-1062.


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