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There's a word for Public Theater's 'Real Thing': brilliant

(c) The Pittsburgh Press

October 3, 1985

By Ed Blank

If Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" were a rotten play, Pittsburgh Public Theater's production still would be an achievement worth seeing.

This first production in the company's second decade out-classes everything in the first 10 seasons. It's an impeccable staging of a play which, in any event, is one of The Public's canniest choices.

It's being staged through Oct. 27 at North Side's Hazlett Theater, where it premiered last night and deserves an opportunity to run longer. Ensemble work this good – and in such an articulate play – is too uncommon to be set aside after less than two months. Too few other than The Public's subscribers will have the opportunity to see it.

I'd be exaggerating to say the local "Real Thing" is superior to the Broadway version that won the Tony as Best Play of the 1983-84 season, though subjectively it seems so. Unquestionably, The Public's presentation plays better because of the Hazlett's intimacy and Lee Sankowich's deft, seamless direction.

In one respect after another, not the least of which are his brilliant transitions between scenes, Sankowich orchestrates the staging as if it were his definitive comment on how to move and frame actors. Only the exit that concludes Act One is awkward.

Stoppard's comic drama is not what it seems at first, but to describe its structure too specifically would deprive theatergoers of the presently rare pleasure of surprise.

The show involves two playwrights, two actors and two actresses. All of the work comments on their lives, which in turn are the well from which they draw interpretations of the life in general for what they do professionally.

Performances are so nearly naturalistic that the actors do not distinguish, except to be true to character, between personal and professional behavior. They don't act with the layered artificiality that normally forces the audience to recognize the difference between what is real and what is acted at.

The plotted mixing and matching of characters in romantic liaisons does not suggest the complexity and credibility witch which they interact.

The perfectionist playwright Henry (Thomas A. Stewart) is so attuned artistically and intellectually to what is acceptable in his craft that he's all but immobilized by the avoidance of the hackneyed, even in his life.

As one of his characters says, "I abhor cliché. That's one of the things that has kept me faithful."

He recognizes the difficulty of trying to write a romance that is not banal. But isn't life itself a cyclical, perpetually repetitious series of clichés?

Stoppard uses as his metaphor Henry's love of musically mediocre but infectious rock songs such as Neil Sadaka's "Oh, Carol," The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

Henry is snobbish enough not to want to catalog rock favorites in an interview he's to do concerning the most influential music in his life. Even "The Skater's Waltz" won't do. There must be something higher-browed he can mention.

But most of us do draw motivation and information about ourselves from the mundane. If life crystallizes from him while he's listening to the Everly Brothers …

Through Henry, Stoppard draws a parallel – more accurately a perpendicular – with a literarily ungifted political pacifist named Brody (Don Fischer). Henry has all the appropriate writing skills and nothing to say, Brody has passion and ideas, but can shape no more than a strident polemic.

"The Real Thing" is full of lived-at metaphors, parallels and examples, which gives its themes a rich duality that is never strained. It's an acerbic romantic comedy in which characters bait each other, but so intelligently that we always see the struggle between human nature and how they think they should respond.

Henry says once of his relationship with Annie, "It will go on, or it will flip onto its opposite."

So it will, and so it is.

Thomas A. Stewart's Henry is more congenial and vulnerable than his Broadway counterpart, Jeremy Irons, without any appreciable sacrifice of character introspection.

Helena Ruoti is Henry's lover and primary confronter, Annie, for whom he cannot write a love story commensurate with Annie's talent. Miss Ruoti has the elegance and intelligence of Deborah Kerr ad Meryl Streep, but surpasses even them with a patrician sensuality to whom few, but Grace Kelly, have had access.

Her performance in "The Real Thing" is one more reason to wish The Public would fill its available late-winter slot with one of the stirring plays Miss Ruoti already has played in Philadelphia, "Nuts" or "Getting Out."

Mary Beth Fisher acts Henry's estranged wife Charlotte and Mary O'Sullivan their daughter Debbie. Robert Moberly and Steven Culp are the actors Max and Billy, respectively.

All play with British or Scottish accents that sound as natural as native tongues, complemented by inflections that are never overdone.

The ensemble is pure pleasure to watch and to listen to, as their characters challenge each other to consider different perspectives and to feel what they don't or can't.

Even longtime Public Theater-goers familiar with the consistently imaginative use of the Hazlett will find Ray Recht's set a revelation and Mary Mease Warren's smart costumes outstanding.

This "Real Thing" really is.

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