Thursday, February 9, 2017

Limping Along

Can a play's impact diminish over the course of several decades? That depends on all kinds of variables (not the least of which are changes in society). Just as one person's garbage may be another's opportunity, the validity of one person's neuroses may diminish over time as the battle between the sexes regroups and adjusts to a changing world.

While one would be hard pressed to find a theatre person who doesn't admire Tom Stoppard's skill as a cunning linguist, there are times when monologues which may once have sizzled seem to fall flat.
  • Has the writing become an exercise in mental masturbation
  • Or has an audience grown tired of certain types of characters? 
As I watched the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Stoppard's 35-year-old play, The Real Thing, I couldn't help but think that its protagonist might not be the valued lover he fancies himself to be. In his program note, Aurora’s Artistic Director, Tom Ross, writes:
The Real Thing is considered one of Stoppard’s most accessible plays, probably because it is about an intellectual playwright (like Sir Stoppard) who is trying to cut through the blocks of his intellect to get to the heart of the matter: true love. Taking place in the world of theatre, television, and film, it explores authenticity versus artifice with the cleverness and wit for which Stoppard is known. One of my favorite elements of the play is this puzzle: is this scene ‘real-life’ or is it ‘scripted’?  Not only do we experience scenes from the work of Henry, our protagonist playwright, but also sections from Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and the work of Brodie, a political prisoner who also happens to be a budding playwright. Additionally, Henry’s unabashed love of pop music from the Sixties lends a populist sheen to the proceedings. As the play progresses, all of the various multigenerational characters express their differing opinions on a wealth of topics including love vs. fidelity, high brow vs. low brow art, reality vs. perception, and the effectiveness and importance of political activism."
Elijah Alexander as Henry in a scene from The Real Thing
(Photo by: David Allen) 

An intellectual snob with a fragile ego that has been cosseted by male privilege resents the fact that the women he gets involved with have no qualms about seeking sex with other men. Or does Henry (Elijah Alexander) simply have trouble understanding that he may be boring the women in his life? I frequently found myself wondering if his wife, Charlotte (Carrie Paff), and mistress, Annie (Liz Sklar), have healthier libidos, more common sense, and are more sexually adventurous than him or simply grew tired of waiting for Henry to shut up and fuck.

Carrie Paff as Charlotte in a scene from The Real Thing
(Photo by: David Allen) 

The first scene of Stoppard's play is meant to confuse the audience. It opens on a middle-aged actor named Max (Seann Gallagher) portraying a character named Max in Henry's play, House of Cards, in which Henry's real-life wife, Charlotte, portrays Max's stage wife. After being caught in a lie about her business travels by her husband (who accuses her of infidelity), she walks out on Max at the end of the play.

Why? Perhaps because he's a jealous, nagging twit. Or, maybe, because she has better options.

If writers are encouraged to write what they know, then Henry (and Stoppard) are doing exactly that. Offstage, Henry has been carrying on an affair with Max's wife, Annie, while he and Charlotte do a pretty solid job of ignoring their 17-year-old daughter, Debbie. Could two narcissistic theatre people who are absentee parents be poor candidates for handling responsibility? Quite possibly.

In Stoppard's play (which premiered in London in 1982 and reflected events taking place in the playwright's personal life), digital watches have just become all the rage. Henry is convinced they are a passing fad. In fact, he's hoping that digital readouts never find a place in modern society.

It doesn't take long to suspect that Henry is okay with change (such as having an affair with Annie) when it works out to his advantage, but turns bitter when anyone else benefits from advances in technology or meeting people who can distract them from paying attention to Henry. To make matters worse, Annie has been doing volunteer work on behalf of a young soldier named Brodie (who was imprisoned for setting fire to a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). As we subsequently learn, she has her reasons.

Liz Sklar (Annie) and Elijah Alexander (Henry) in a
scene from The Real Thing (Photo by: David Allen) 

Act II takes place two years later. Henry and Annie are still together (although their relationship is starting to show signs of strain). Following his separation from Charlotte, Henry has been forced to write television scripts in order to earn enough money to cover his alimony payments. While in prison, Brodie has written a play which Annie is trying to help him get staged. At the very least, she's asked Henry to do a rewrite of Brodie's script in order to make it more appealing to a producer.

Henry doesn't hesitate to tell Annie that Brodie's writing stinks (as befits an anti-intellectual goon) and that, although his own TV writing is less than great, he has no interest in trying to fluff up Brodie's pathetic script. Although Henry may be stymied by his inability to get his feelings about Annie onto paper, his insecurities mount when Annie gets cast in a production of John Ford's 1633 classic, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, in Glasgow. Who will end up riding the rails to visit their partner?

While Annie is performing in Scotland, Henry visits his ex-wife and daughter and is shocked by Debbie's claim that monogamy is nothing more than a form of colonization. Charlotte's casual confession that she enjoyed numerous affairs with other men during their marriage severely rattles her ex-husband and, by the time Henry gets home, he's convinced that Annie must be cheating on him as well. Although Annie has been having a platonic affair with her handsome young co-star, Billy (Thomas Gorrebeeck), there has been no sexual activity. She has been very careful about respecting that boundary and sees no reason why she can't feel love for both men.

Thomas Gorrebeeck (Billy) and Liz Sklar (Annie) in a
scene from The Real Thing (Photo by: David Allen) 

Elijah Alexander and Liz Sklar give thoroughly committed, beautifully layered performances. It's always a pleasure to see Thomas Gorrebeeck (who doubles as Billy and Brodie) onstage. Although neatly directed by Timothy Near on Nina Ball's flexible set (with a talented ensemble that includes Carrie Paff, Seann Gallagher, and Emily Radosevich in supporting roles), The Real Thing proved to a real disappointment. I was surprisingly underwhelmed.

My suspicion is that the growing strength of the women's movement may have diminished an audience's concern for the wounded feelings of a wordy intellectual like Henry (whose ego is quite fragile and whose talent may not be as impressive as he'd like to think it is). I also think women have become more assertive about what they want (and are willing to tolerate), a factor which diminishes the sympathy audiences might once have felt for the emotionally constipated Henry.

As a result, I found myself strongly agreeing with Ben Brantley's reaction to a 2014 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Stoppard's play:
"This production is one of those unfortunate revivals that make you wonder if the play in question is worth revisiting. [It] never acquires a pulse beyond the rhythmic thrust and parry of bandied bons mots [and] often feels as teeth-grindingly brittle as a summer stock production of a W. Somerset Maugham drawing-room comedy."
Performances of The Real Thing continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through March 5 (click here for tickets). Unlike Hamlet, the play itself may not be the thing.

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