The Real Thing baby, uh huh!
One of the true pleasures of theatergoing is listening to Tom Stoppard. As far as modern playwrights go, he makes the most literate and poetic arguments for art, theater and philosophy.
The Huntington's production of The Real Thing is a joy, a treasure and an escape. A bouyancy keeps the audience and the actors floating for most of the evening on an air of pure wizardry. Stoppard's scene progressions are never predictable, and he is neither afraid to bring on characters at unexpected moments nor timid about shifting focus on us. His language is rare and valuable to the theatre, reminding us that an art is about beauty. And the particular timing of this encounter with beauty allows us a bit of a respite from the current world and national news reports, which bring horrors of devastation into our psyche on an up- to-the-minute basis.
Though a formidable work, this self-consumed Stoppard doesn't reach the levels of his later Arcadia and The Invention of Love, or his earlier Travesties. He's inward and searching, but without enough humility or respect for his opponents. Henry, the playwright protagonist, is furious at his actress wife's intentions to star in a bad play written by a lower class, soldier-activist who is serving time in prison for defacing a war memorial. In the a highlighted scene, Henry eviscerates the utterly cliche ridden play using a cricket bat as a metaphor for playwrighting. Harold Bloom would be proud of Henry's reducing of an activist play to a "steamroller," but it is stacking the proverbial deck when, later, the actual activist is reduced by Stoppard to a love sick puppy, and the activist's cause to a crush. This particular irony is insightful, but belongs in another play. While I completely agree that fanatic ideology doesn't create the best art, I also believe that the same may be true when the fanatic's cause is an aesthetic ideology itself.
Stoppard may be our best playwright working in the English Language right now, and this play open our minds, as is the duty of great art, to the questions of our accepted beliefs and codas. Using Love as the central metaphor, he is asking us, what is The Real Thing? The too-cool Henry's insouciance about commitment and relationships gives way to a predictable breakdown in the second act, but it is clear what is Stoppard's real target: Aesthetic arguments.
Like a good union negotiator, Stoppard concedes something that is of lesser value to him, the interpersonal relationship standards of his protaganist. But, with cricket bat in hand, he is now after the big game, the artistry of playwrighting, and he is not prepared to give an inch. And who is prepared to argue with the master? The phrase about a knife and gunfight comes to mind, but seems incredibly cliched. Though he flirts with a more substantial conflict - (Henry is revealed to be writing a science fiction teleplay) - Stoppard immediately winks at us with an understanding that Henry's artistic slumming is more for the money than for lack of inspiration about true love.
Why does it seem that every filmmaker or screenwriter dramatised on the stage is a Hollywood Hack? Let's see a character like Werner Herzog, Harmony Korine, or Stanley Kubrick stand up to the Henry's of the world. That would be a fair fight.
In these times we are living in now, it seems a little "cheeky" to elevate Stoppard's exploration of self-involved bedroom hopping, to too high of a level. But enjoy by all means, because this is great theatre...and Stoppard would be the first to tell you it is.