In 1982, Sheridan Morley, a critic for the UK’s Spectator magazine said, Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” “was the one (play) that first showed us Stoppard has a heart as well as a head.” If you’re the kind of person who applauds Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage, you’d probably agree.
The Real Thing, currently being staged by the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, explores how Henry (Nick Sandys), a playwright who writes about the cruelties of infidelity, deals with the reality of deception in his own love affairs.
The only problem here is that Stoppard depicts Henry’s relentless dedication to his lover Annie (Linda Gillum), as a mark of maturation and true love, whereas it feels to me like a sucker engaging in ritual self abuse (no fault of this particular production). Gillum as Annie works a Lindsay Lohan-esque type charm (which is to say not Lohan’s stupid girl gone wild side, but rather the conniving intelligent sexpot with a glint in her eye) and so it’s hard not to forgive Henry’s infatuation, but ultimately it still feels like a trivialization of “The Real Thing” that is true love. And even though the tables are turned, with the woman cheating, it’s hard not read it as a male idealization on how a woman should act when her man strays.
Irrespective of the elements of the heart, the head is very much on display. The Real Thing is filled with amusing riffs on digital watches and the intricacies of selecting just the right Desert Island Discs. Anyone who grew up in the ‘90’s during the heyday bloom of indie film, where writer/directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith compensated for low budgets with smartly penned scripts rife with intelligent banter about the politics of tipping or contract work on the Death Star, will recognize Stoppard as their spiritual grandfather.
In this play, Stoppard also explores the ideas of life imitating art, a play within a play, and where everything is not as real as it seems, all the while dropping cultural literacy bombs with nods to Henrik Ibsen and a shout out to the 17th century play “‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore” penned by John Ford.
Each of the actor’s performances is spot on, but none more captivating than Sandys who walks the line between Henry’s intellectual superiority and emotional vulnerability with aplomb.
Since the dialogue is the thing, and the performances are so good, this production would likely be successful if it we’re staged on an L platform. Yet, the set designers manage to wrest a Mike Brady like mid-century intellectual spirit from a careful juxtaposition of IKEA maple furniture, a rifled pile of albums, and a brimming tray of cocktail paraphernalia, the perfect early ‘80’s salon for Henry and Annie.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com