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‘Real Thing’ marries the head and heart

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Special to The Times

“It’s no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst.”

This epigram, one of countless glittering examples, locates the beating heart of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” in a limited run at the Center Theater in Long Beach.

Stoppard’s celebrated exploration of infidelity and literary codification has been a hit since its 1982 London premiere starring Roger Rees and Felicity Kendal. The play’s success continued with Mike Nichols’ 1984 Broadway staging, winning Tonys for best play and actors Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. This repeated in 2000, when David Leveaux’s Donmar Warehouse Theatre transplant took Tonys for best revival and actors Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle.

“The Real Thing” points Stoppard’s intellectual prowess and theatrical shrewdness, hallmarks of his canon from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” onward, toward more personal areas of human response.

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This is enfolded in a play-within-a-play. “The Real Thing” opens on a skewered scene of marital disarray, slinging barbs in a manner merging Noel Coward with Ross Hunter.

Scene 2 informs us that the previous pair are actors Max (Spencer Garrett) and Charlotte (Laura Wernette), and their exchange is a scene from “House of Cards,” the latest comedy by playwright (and Stoppard surrogate) Henry (Robertson Dean), who is Charlotte’s husband.

Subsequently, when Max’s actress spouse Annie (Michelle Duffy) shares a furtive moment of intimacy with Henry, the narrative ignites. There is adultery afoot, and more than a house of cards is about to tumble.

Stoppard draws Henry and Annie’s relationship in tandem with Henry’s position on art, particularly language. This provides some brilliant Stoppard dialogue, the references ranging from Ibsen to Procol Harum. By the denouement, “The Real Thing” itself is the play Henry has matured enough to write.

Mature professionalism sustains director Jules Aaron’s handsome mounting in Long Beach, starting with the mercurial pair at its center. Dean, with his pipe organ voice, is profoundly invested. The throaty Duffy matches him beat for beat, her calm exterior concealing an infinitely shifting inner spiral.

Their coevals are also strong, with Garrett very touching and Wernette both affable and acidic. In Act 2, Joseph Sanfelippo is subtle and funny as Annie’s hunky Glasgow colleague, and Erin Bennett’s free-spirited daughter only needs to relax a bit, as her characterization is sound.

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The designs are another asset. D. Martyn Bookwalter’s revolving set effortlessly shifts between locales, aided by his smooth lighting, and both Garry Lennon’s Thatcher-period fashions and Paul Fabre’s sound cues are adroit.

As is Aaron’s staging, whenever it deals in emotional contradictions, but the theatrical gambits and sociology prove more elusive. The opening ploy doesn’t immediately register as fake-out, which the following exposition is slow to clarify, forcing the proceedings to play catch-up thereafter.

More critically, Stoppard’s literary argument is arbitrary and unevenly slanted. Pitting Henry’s elitism against the didacticism of message-mongering Brodie (the convincing Darren Richardson), whom Annie champions, Stoppard gives Henry a contrived advantage, which is compounded when Brodie’s essential shallowness is revealed. Yet if such boggles blur Stoppard’s impact, nothing quells his post-Shavian wit and honesty, or Dean and Duffy’s embodiment of the same, which recommends this stylish revival.

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‘The Real Thing’

Where: Center Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: June 29

Price: $27-$35

Contact: (562) 436-4610

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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