By Charles Brousse
“Will the real Tom Stoppard please stand up!” That echo of the signature climax of What’s My Line?, one of early American television’s most popular shows, almost always pops into my head when I attend a play by the prolific British playwright. It happened again last week after witnessing a revival of The Real Thing by Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. After all, at least in part it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical musing about the difference between hypocritical assertions of love and the genuine connection of one individual to another, without qualifications: The selfless bond that makes it the REAL thing.
Of course, Stoppard wasn’t present in Berkeley for the opening, but if he were, I’m absolutely certain that if given an order to stand and reveal who he really is and what he really believes about love and marriage, he would remain seated.
Like some of the most influential playwrights in this post-modern era—Pinter, Beckett and Albee come to mind—Stoppard has an aversion to expressing a definitive view of virtually anything. Yet, in this and other plays, his characters rattle on about morality, politics, science and philosophy, with a dazzling display of erudition and language, accompanied by more wit than any author since Oscar Wilde. You have to wonder how he does it, especially since his formal education ended at age 17, and in interviews he admits that he knows very little about the subjects he writes about. He says he likes to think of life as a game of ideas. Hitting them back and forth over a net with a cricket bat is a better choice than struggling to reach some abstract, unreachable truth. The game offers a positive environment for creative expression—and, if you don’t worry too much about the facts, it’s a lot more fun!
Does that make sense, or is it simply a moral cop-out? Is Stoppard a brilliant, intellectual provocateur who is guided by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or is he a slick purveyor of attractively packaged artistic snake oil?
That’s a judgment that I’ll leave to future historians of the theater.
While we’re waiting, let’s circle back to Aurora’s production of The Real Thing. The following are the facts, or should I say they’re my facts. First, director Timothy Near has assembled a first-rate cast to enact this tale of rampant adultery and at least partial redemption. Heading the group, Elijah Alexander provides a memorable performance as Henry (Stoppard’s selfie portrait?), a successful dramatist married to the beautiful and talented, but emotionally unreliable actress, Charlotte (Carrie Paff). In Alexander’s hands, Henry’s progression from willing player in a game of mutual deceit at the play’s beginning to agonizing reflection about how life and art intersect at its end a couple of hours later, is the evening’s highlight. Watching him, I can imagine the excitement caused by a similar journey taken by another fine actor, Jeremy Irons, in the play’s 1984 Broadway premiere.
Liz Sklar adds a strong appearance as Annie, Henry’s morally slippery actress/mistress, as does Seann Gallagher as Max, Henry’s friend and Annie’s ingenuous husband. Tommy Gorrebeeck and Emily Radosevich are fine in supporting roles.
The problem is that all of these pieces don’t really mold into a cohesive experience. Much is lost in the static caused by Stoppard’s passion for bon mots and his tendency to voice what could be intriguing observations if explored, only to toss them away a few minutes later as if he were husking an ear of corn. This is especially true of the issues surrounding the core trio of Henry, Charlotte and Annie. As the play unfolds, you begin to wish that everything would slow down from what feels like a breathless pace, crowded with gimmicks like the continuous crossing of the line into play-within-a-play fantasy and arguments over the aesthetic value of a play written by a disgruntled ex-convict (Tommy Gorrebeeck) who was imprisoned for setting fire to the British flag on London’s Cenotaph.
(Actually, as I write this amidst the chaos in Washington and the bold assertion by people in high places that “fact” is a subjective concept, my appreciation of Stoppard’s ambivalence about reality is rising. The difference is that plays, good or bad, close after a few weeks.)
NOW PLAYING: The Real Thing runs through March 5 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley; 510/843-4822; auroratheatre.org.