Chicago Theater Review: THE REAL THING (Writers Theatre in Glencoe)

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by Tony Frankel on October 11, 2011

in Theater-Chicago


Tom Stoppard is the thinking person’s playwright. Ever since his breakout hit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1967, the erudite scribe has been earmarked an absurdist, one whose work concentrates on the futility of man’s search for meaning in a meaningless existence. As with all Theatre of the Absurd, Stoppard does not offer tidy endings or resolutions. His plays are an opportunity for you to relieve yourself of the futile search for answers by living in the question. Forget meaning, for that is the subjectivity that usually lands us in hot water. (Before the Broadway premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an interviewer asked Stoppard what his play was about. His response: “It’s about to make me very rich.”) As with Beckett and Ionesco, Stoppard is less interested in answers than he is in exploring themes surrounding man’s failure to accept the absurdity of life, which leads to our dehumanization. And in The Real Thing, one of Stoppard’s most accessible plays now receiving a pitch-perfect production at Writers Theatre, these themes are love, marriage and adultery.

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe - Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

The play begins in a true Stoppardian alternate reality: Max (John Sanders) is wrongly accusing wife Charlotte (Natasha Lowe) of having an affair, but in the next scene, we slowly come to realize that Max and Charlotte are characters in a play that came from the mind of our protagonist Henry (Sean Fortunato), who is married to Charlotte, who now has a completely different personality than that of the character in the play.

In fact, actress Charlotte is dissatisfied with Henry’s play, believing that the female character she portrays receives careless attention, while the personage of Max is Henry’s thinly veiled attempt to show off his own wit and intellectualism (which is exactly what critics have said about Stoppard himself).

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe - Chicago Theater Review by Tony FrankelIn the same scene, actor Max comes to visit with his wife, Annie (Carrie Coon), whom we soon discover is having an affair with playwright Henry. (In real life, Stoppard had an affair with the actress who portrayed Annie in the original London production.) What ensue are more affairs and declarations of previous affairs: Some characters see these as harmless fun and games if separated from romance, while others use them as a way to balance what is missing in their marriage.

First-timers to Stoppard may feel alienated by the play, or the play-within-a-play, or later the play-within-the-play-within-the-play, but like a puzzle box that requires straightforward squeezes in the right spots or delicate pressure on several small parts, director Michael Halberstam knows the correct series of movements that get to the prize inside. His actors not only maintain a realistic English patois, but handle the Coward-like sophistications and witticisms with aplomb on Collette Pollard’s set, which has panels and tables shifting like a Rubik’s Cube, hinting at the fine line between fantasy and reality.

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe - Chicago Theater Review by Tony Frankel

While it is somewhat dismaying that Chicagoland is seeing an upsurge in revivals, one hopes that this Broadway-caliber production, presented in such an intimate space, will be witnessed by budding playwrights, as it will surely inspire the development of new work.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Real Thing
Writers Theatre
325 Tudor Court in Glencoe
ends on November 27, 2011
for tickets, visit Writers Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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