Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Real Thing
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Lettice and Lovage and Richard's reviews of The Christians and Fun Home

Elijah Alexander
Photo by David Allen
Tom Stoppard's plays are not for everyone. If you're looking for easy entertainment or careless frivolity, if you want to sit back and glide mindlessly through an evening of theatre, Stoppard is probably not your man. That's not to say casual playgoers won't enjoy themselves at a Stoppard play, or get some laughs or insight into the human condition, even if they're distracted or tired or even simply not terribly bright. But if you go to one of Stoppard's better works (ignoring, for example, his recent blunder with The Hard Problem), with your mind and attention engaged, the rewards are plentiful, for Sir Tom (he was knighted in 1997) writes plays that are intellectually thrilling, with well-wrought characters delivering witty dialogue and sharp insights.

The Real Thing, currently in production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, is no exception. It's one of Stoppard's best, and even when a director misses the mark (as Timothy Near unfortunately does here), it's almost impossible not to appreciate the layers of meaning and motivation he weaves for his audience.

The Real Thing, not surprisingly, is about love and art. Specifically, true love and true art. The plot concerns Henry, a playwright who admits to a bit of snobbery, but when it comes down to it, his snobbishness is likely due to his living up to his own high artistic standards. As the play begins, Henry is married to Charlotte, though the couple we see on stage is Charlotte and Max, her scene partner in a production of Henry's play House of Cards. This play-within-a-play is only one example of the layers at work here. And, symbolism alert, when the titular house of cards Max has constructed comes tumbling down, you can be sure other collapses are imminent, for Henry is carrying on an affair with Max's wife Annie (who also seems to be holding a flame for an imprisoned activist soldier, whose crime was destroying not an actual thing, but a symbol of something greater), and true love must out.

There is falseness and misdirection everywhere, and Stoppard uses them to play with our perceptions with a magician's skill. You think a line is going one direction, and it suddenly shoots off—hilariously—in another ("One of the Italian operas. Verdi." "Which one?" "Giuseppe"). You think you're watching a scene between two lovers and it turns out to be a scene between two fictional lovers—but that mirrors the relationship between two "real" fictional lovers who "live" in the uppermost level of the play. Finding what is true and real is part of the fun Stoppard creates for his audience.

When it comes to writing, however, Stoppard is very clear in stating that passion for a subject is no match for actual skill. "If you get the right ones in the right order," Henry says of words, "you might nudge the world a little." To illustrate his point (that Annie's imprisoned soldier has written an awful play, despite his desire), Henry produces a cricket bat and explains that it—despite having similarities to a plank of wood—is specifically and artfully designed to be more than the sum of its parts, more than a hunk of lumber. It is, simply put, better suited to the task of sending a ball off into the distance.

Stoppard has created a cricket bat of a play—even if the ball isn't struck right on the sweet spot, you're still going to get better results than a plank of wood. Though Timothy Near hasn't hit one over the boundary for a sixer, she hasn't been bowled out, either. Her cast, especially the women (Carrie Paff as Charlotte and Emily Radosevich as Annie), have caught Stoppard's rhythms, but as an ensemble they can't seem to highlight the playfulness of the text, and the whole affair tends toward the shrill, especially in act one. As Stoppard has Henry say in act one, "You may have all the words, but having all the words is not what life's about."

The Real Thing runs through March 5, 2017, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $36-$56. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.

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