Subtlety is largely lost in director Linda Alznauer's staging of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at Two Roads Theatre.
The trouble begins with that slippery first scene, which we later learn is actually a scene from a play written by playwright/protagonist, Henry (Michael Robb.) This opener should be a bait-and-switch, with characters to convincingly real that it leaves the audience genuinely disoriented. However, Alznauer bungles the effect by having the performers mug broadly and play front, a style more appropriate to an outdoor drama in Chillicothe than to Stoppard's challenging rumination on the nature of human love.
Worse, Robb's Henry commences on such a grindingly arch note that it threatens to reduce his character to rubble. Not that the quality of archness isn't intrinsic to the play. Yet it should be sophisticated archness, not the self-conscious stripe initially evinced by Robb.
It's only later, when Henry argues with his actress wife Annie (Cindy Marinangel) about what distinguishes "real" writing from dross, that Robb's true capacities become apparent. It's a crackling interchange that showcases these two actors' formidable abilities and gives a tantalizing hint of what might have been.
While not unattractive, Diana Martin and Larry White's set is disastrous in practice, requiring constant and laborious scene shifts to little compositional effect. Martin's costumes are also problematic, ranging from the genuinely stylish to some outfits that seem deliberately designed to sabotage.
However, real talent often glints through the clumsy trappings. Jared Boghosian is authentically ardent as Annie's much younger lover, and Brandon Irons is delightfully oafish as Annie's pet cause. Yet the production really does rise and fall on the character of Henry, the exponent for Stoppard's own intellectualism and wit. One suspects that a surer directorial hand could have shaped Robb's scattershot artificiality into consistent excellence – the "real thing" this production currently lacks.
'The Real Thing'
Where: Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 9.
Tickets: $15. (323) 822-7898. www.plays411.com/therealthing
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.