THE REAL THING (The Wilma): Exquisite dialogue shines through spotty production

Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing at The WilmaTom’s Stoppard’s dramedy THE REAL THING is set on a constantly evolving stage transforming into different locations in the UK during the early 1980s. Sky-high walls disappear, doors emerge out of nowhere, and scenes fluidly fold into the next with the help of nimble cast and crewmembers. First off, a man sits building a house of cards in a perfectly done up living room, awaiting his wife’s return. The card house collapses with her sudden entrance, as does their marriage when he confronts her with the passport she left behind–on her trip out of the country. The whole scene feels rather put on, and the fake English accents don’t help.

The playwright thought so too. Not Tom Stoppard though, Henry (Kevin Collins), the main character and playwright upon which the commentary on theater, art and love in THE REAL THING is largely based. The first 15 minutes are a scene from his latest piece, and the wife, actual name Charlotte (Karen Peakes), is married to him. Her play-within-a-play husband, Max (Dan Hodge) is married to another actress Annie (Suzy Jane Hunt), who happens to be in love with and sleeping with Henry. Annie begs Henry, with legs spread, to touch her while both of their significant others are making dip in the kitchen. Max, in real life, finds a little clue that unravels both marriages, and Annie and Henry get married at last. And that’s just the first 30 minutes.

Despite the soap opera set up, Stoppard’s script is so dazzlingly brilliant that even the English accents seem well rounded at the end, not to mention the characters. Rarely does theater take on such lofty and lengthy conversations, and deliver it with such clarity. Kevin Collins nails it, and carries Stoppard’s soliloquies with Shakespearian power, but modern simplicity and rhythm. Stoppard discusses the influence of words through Henry at multiple moments throughout, and their power to “build bridges across incomprehension and chaos,” when you “get the right ones in the right order.” This applies to both words and actors, as the commotion in THE REAL THING would never have been brought to order without such a standout leading role and a wealth of supporting characters.

Karen Peakes as Charlotte provides a great counterpoint to Henry’s serious musings, and injects sincerity into the rather tricky emotional places Charlotte finds herself in. Though Dan Hodge and Suzy Jane Hunt are entertaining as Max and Annie, they don’t have the same subtlety and nuance. Reaching for the unfamiliar accent may cause some of the rough edges; in a few cases I find an odd pronunciation or high-pitched note throw me out of focus.

Similarly the expansive stage is largely undefined and often distracts from the action. Cast members not currently in the scene would sit on sidelines, but in view, presumably to heighten the sense of play-within-a-play type theater, but the muddled sets don’t fit with Stoppard’s sharp and precise dialogue. Instead of capitalizing on the multiple realities with distinction, the coexistence of all of them on stage together at once makes the transitions murky. However, no issue of staging could stop this wonderful expose of Stoppard’s exquisite writing from shining. Though the action of THE REAL THING approaches that of a rom com, the romance and comedy are from insight, wordplay, and refreshing notions of love and theater. [The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.] May 21 – June 22, 2014; http://www.wilmatheater.org.

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About the author

Nicole Forrester

Nicole Forrester grew up memorizing Shakespeare’s sonnets for allowance money, and for years has rigorously attended FringeArts and Philadelphia theater offerings in general. Among activities including aerial acrobatics, event planning, and sketch comedy, she still considers theater, and now review, her favorite method of adventure.