‘Real Thing’ Has Right Stuff


Henry, a playwright, is desperately in love with his wife. His love requires him to defend the importance of good writing against his wife’s insistence on the importance of social responsibility. Their positions might coexist, but at this moment in this situation, they conflict violently. So Henry is forced to articulate a defense of standards, of valuing work that is well made, and he does it by using the example of his cricket bat.

Occurring at the top of Act 2 of “The Real Thing,” this speech is one of Tom Stoppard’s best and most passionate. Delivered by actor Jeff Allin in a solid new production of the play at the Pasadena Playhouse, Henry’s diatribe carries special resonance. For the first time in five years, the playhouse has an artistic director, Sheldon Epps, who came here from his post as associate artistic director at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. “The Real Thing,” directed here by Epps, is a play of ideas, passionately held and eloquently written from start to finish. It is the first such play to grace this stage in the four years I’ve been attending plays here. It’s not a new play, nor is it written by an American, nor is it instantly accessible (although neither is it difficult). But “The Real Thing” is the real thing, a play by a world-class writer, a play with insights that follow you out of the theater and deep into the night. Could this be a herald of a new and better age at the playhouse?

Of course, it’s early in the day for assessments of the Epps era. But for now, “The Real Thing” is reason enough to go to Pasadena. While not perfect, Epps’ production is supple, smart and moving.


“The Real Thing” depicts a love roundelay among a group of theater people, and we watch them perform in plays and act roles in their own lives. Stoppard employs some of the puzzle-constructing for which he is famous, but that is not his main concern in this 1982 play. This is essentially a journey into the meaning of love, jealousy and betrayal, at least as it exists for Henry, a man who always has the right word to demolish anyone who challenges him.

Henry is dazzling, but he is also a snob and enough of a boor to correct a flustered opponent’s grammar in the heat of argument. Stoppard writes some fairly strong arguments for other characters, but where reason is concerned, Henry always gets it right. The beauty and pain of the play is in watching Henry wrestle with a problem in which his brilliance can’t help him. His love requires something else of him, and he has no choice but to taste degradation in his quest to find the bottom--the very meaning--of his love for Annie, an actress who is chronically unfaithful.


Allin’s performance in the role is problematic in that he plays Henry as a sad sack, an interpretation diametrically opposed to the charismatic bragger embodied by Jeremy Irons in the 1984 Broadway production. When Allin’s Henry gets off a brilliant zinger, his eyes fly to the ground, as if he’s afraid of reaction. He seems insecure. This interpretation has the effect of shortening Henry’s harrowing journey down the dark tunnel of self-doubt. In Allin’s portrayal, Henry doesn’t fall as far as he should.

Still, it is a lucid performance, especially as played against the wonderful Christina Haag, whose sensuous Julie Christie-like beauty brings a warmth to the part of Annie that was missing from Glenn Close’s Broadway version. Annie is that interesting contradiction--a selfish do-gooder. She takes on social causes and betrays people who love her even as she claims to be acting honestly and in line with the dictates of her heart. One could accuse Stoppard of stacking the deck against the female side of his warring couple, except that Haag makes Annie so captivating and her self-rationalizations so clear. In a sense, she corrects the play.

The supporting cast is quite vivid, particularly David Purdham as a cuckolded actor and Scott Ferrara as a brash, younger rival for Annie’s affections. The sets--though they revolve impressively on a turntable--are not credible as the rooms these characters would live in, and they ask us to believe that a literary man would have volumes from Reader’s Digest and the World Book Encyclopedia on his bookshelf.

Stoppard does employ a structural trick in this play--he repeats the discovery of an adultery three times in three different configurations. In this way, he creates a tunnel effect through which we can examine the pain of a primal betrayal and he provides a light, too, on a way out of that tunnel. Epps couldn’t have picked a better debut vehicle for himself at the Pasadena Playhouse.


* “The Real Thing,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Jeff Allin: Henry

Scott Ferrara: Billy

Christina Haag: Annie

Colette Kilroy: Charlotte

David Mann: Brodie

Annie Meisels: Debbie

David Purdham: Max

A Pasadena Playhouse production. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Sets James Leonard Joy. Lights Michael Gilliam. Costumes Marianna Elliott. Sound Jeff Ladman. Production stage manager Jill Johnson Gold.