Every charming member of the bourgeoisie in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing enjoys the luxury of coupling and uncoupling. The playwright fleshes out a closed society, one that is intelligent, verbose, and privileged, and parades that economic class’ set of emotions across the stage. They unloose their anguished vexation in squawks and yawps that recall childhood strolls in zoos. These caged animals use a language that is unmistakably pained, but locating the exact source of the problem ultimately remains untranslatable.
Stoppard has written a play (and a play within a play) about infidelity, arguing all the while that he hasn’t, that something larger is at stake. True love is, perhaps, the real thing. Or perhaps not. The character motivations range from self-involved to selfish, and nowhere in between. As the plot moves from one narcissist to the next, the roundelay of desire is a substitute for an actual story. Art imitating life and vice versa is a strategy that quickly wears itself out.
House of Cards is the shadow title of Stoppard’s play within a play written by his surrogate, a playwright named Max (Seann Gallagher). He is married to Charlotte (Carrie Paff), an actress co-starring in the play with Henry (Elijah Alexander). Henry is married to Annie (Liz Sklar), also an actress. Annie, we soon learn, is having an affair with Max. Stoppard dispenses that bit of information early on, in the middle of the second scene. From this point on, he repeatedly circles back to a single preoccupation: Have Max and Annie found the real thing with each other? Or is their love likely to topple down like a house of cards?
The actors work hard, often too hard, to get you to care what the outcome will be. The burden of plausibility rests upon Max’s shoulders, the verbally dexterous main character. Regrettably, Gallagher has romanticized him, playing a writer with a dreamy expression and heavy-lidded eyes. When a merciless line reading is called for, he relies on his charm to soften the blow. Stoppard also gives Annie some stinging lines, but Sklar projects a wholesomeness that competes with and then defeats her flashes of vitriol. There’s something intrinsically unkind about willful infidelity. That feeling, for the most part, is strangely hushed and undeveloped here.
And then, late in the long second act, Billy (Tommy Gorrebeeck), a minor character, struts on stage. He temporarily wakes up the production. When he holds a woman in his arms and says that he wants her, in that moment, he means it. This is what Stoppard is after, what’s needed from the actors to make the script work. The real thing is also an actor delivering his lines as if they had just arrived in his mind, unrehearsed. It’s a small role that Gorrebeeck doesn’t overwork or over-think. A necessarily harder task to accomplish for the protagonists whose mouths are stuffed to the gills with ever expanding sheets of dialogue.
Their discursive selves though drive home another one of the playwright’s points. Every character in this kingdom of love is needy, demanding and very well-practiced at procuring yet another lover. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in the room with them. In this world, to desire is to declare, “Hand me the mirror!” What matters is less the particular lover than the acknowledgement and approbation that he or she is, indeed, the smartest and the fairest of them all, even if that illusory image swims inside of a cold and unforgiving glass.
The Real Thing, through March 5, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-843-4822 or auroratheatre.org