REAL THINGby Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jim Covault
Set Designer - Jim Covault
Costume Designer - Michael Robinson & Dallas Costume Shoppe
Lighting Designer - Michael O'Brien
Sound Design - Jerry Russell and Dana Schultes
Props/Set Decor - Lynn Lovett
Andy Baldwin - Max
Emily Scott Banks - Charlotte
Chuck Huber - Henry
Dana Schultes - Annie
Joshua Buehler - Billy
Mikaela Krantz - Debbie
Eric Dobbins - Brodie
Reviewed Performance: 4/6/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In the early 80's though, Stoppard would produce a work focused on life, love, and language that represented a new chapter in his writing career. The result is The Real Thing, a show that challenges the conventions of true love by deconstructing the language surrounding it. Stage West's new production of the show gets the words right, but struggles to establish the emotional connections living inside Stoppard's magnificent words.
On paper, director and scenic designer Jim Covault's vision for the show is perfect. Covault uses a simple wall structure of white beams with removable panels. As the scenes change, panels can be removed to reveal drops of a London flat or a garden estate. Different panels open to different doors in each scene, as furniture suggests a train station or backstage green room. The minimalist design is both practical and indicative of the play itself.
Stoppard toys with the audience's notion of reality from the very beginning, and Covault contributes to this by making the audience aware of scenic transitions. The staging merely suggests scenes rather than creating completely realistic environments. In doing so, the audience is more aware of Stoppard's wordplay while heightening dramatic tension when raw emotional moments suddenly emerge.
At least that's what the concept should be capable of doing. The execution of his vision is lazy and lackluster. In between scenes the audience is left to sit for 30 seconds to a minute while clearly visible stagehands move every piece of furniture to another location. The lights fade to black at the end of every scene, only to turn back on in transition, and actors suddenly emerge while the scene is still moving. There's probably no easy way to create the six or seven different locations in the show except to use scene transitions. Yet because they are unplanned and poorly designed, the shifts from scene to scene take far too long to accomplish and pull the audience completely out of the show.
It doesn't help, at least for this performance, that the energy for the first half of the show is considerably low. It takes a lot to dive into the verbal acrobatics Tom Stoppard writes into his plays. Jokes are likely to go over the audience's head and it can take some time for the audience to catch up with the speed of the words. The cast, however, doesn't help by plowing through the lines as quickly as possible, never letting jokes breathe. It seems as though the timing and energy are off, and those elements are critical for the success of such a heady script.
To their credit, the cast is technically solid. The characters are defined well and they've mastered the words of the script. There just seems to be a lack of emotional chemistry onstage, at least in the beginning. Early on, there's a scene where we learn that Henry, a playwright, is having an affair with the wife of an actor in one of his plays. When Henry's wife and the actor leave the room, the two lovers are left alone. The scene is oozing with sexual tension yet that tension never materializes. It's not until 1/3 of the way through the second act that the cast gets the play in gear, and by that point the audience's heads are aching with seemingly meaningless puns, double entendre, and allusion.
Chuck Huber is the highlight of the cast as Henry, a pretentious playwright who has a fondness for pop music, and a romantic, lonely heart hidden by an unyielding wit. Huber is going on all cylinders, giving full effort to his character onstage. He comprehends every turn of phrase and linguistic game his character is meant to play, which is no small feat. His accent is impeccable, portraying the upper crust of London but never sounding like a caricature. Henry is, in many ways, the voice of Tom Stoppard himself, and Huber taps into that persona throughout the show. His portrayal shows the a purely intellectual man's struggle to make sense of love, heartbreak, and emotions with balance and grace.
As perfect as Huber is, his efforts are for naught, as his partner, Dana Schultes, can't match his energy. Schultes plays Annie, an optimistic, idealistic actress in a tug-of-war between her emotional life and her stark reality. It's especially evident in her relationship with Henry; she loves him completely but struggles with his cynicism and intellect. There's a lot of nuance and inner emotion written into Annie but Schultes never finds it. She underplays incredibly emotional moments and treads water along the surface of her character. Her energy and investment improves over the course of the show but never enough to be believable. Schultes is undeniably talented but doesn't seem comfortable in this role.
Andy Baldwin is solid as Max, Annie's former love. In his three scenes, he plays three completely different roles, and shows an incredible range. He has one of the most poignant scenes in the play, when he confronts Annie about cheating on him. Baldwin is at once angry, sad, upset, and shocked - in other words, Baldwin reacts as anyone would if they discovered the person they loved had betrayed them. He's not a key player later in the show, but Baldwin makes his presence felt in his brief time onstage.
Emily Scott Banks carries an incredible presence as Charlotte, Henry's wife and an actress herself. Charlotte is the exact opposite of Annie, cynical and worldly. She's the epitome of a working actress, and in many ways she's the perfect match for Henry. Banks is also the opposite of her counterpart, with an incredible presence and comfort in her character. Banks shoots from the hip in both comedic and dramatic moments with complete ease. Charlotte's an important figure in the fabric of Henry's life and Banks ensures that the character's voice is heard.
The three featured actors are good, if a little outshined by their fellow performers.
The best of the group is Mikaela Krantz who plays Henry's free-spirited, jaded daughter Debbie. She manages to match wits with Huber in a thoughtful, quiet scene, playing a perfect foil to his giant presence.
Joshua Buehler is cocky and oblivious as Billy, Annie's young love interest. Buehler has a good sense of character, but doesn't go as far as he could.
Eric Dobbins, as Brodie, misses the mark. He just doesn't give enough as a character to be effective, which is a shame because Brodie is a constant offstage presence throughout the show. Despite only having a few minutes onstage, the whole plot hinges on Brodie's presence and Dobbins just doesn't provide it.
The costume design by Michael Robinson and Dallas Costume Shoppe, and the props and set decor by Lynn Lovett match Covault's set design, suggesting the period and the space without needing to be incredibly detailed.
The sound design from Jerry Russell and Dana Schultes is impeccable, both in execution and music choice. The music is familiar, a mix of scriptural references, pieces mentioned by characters, and music from the early '80s, all of which match the themes and mood of the show. The sound fades perfectly as different characters put on records or listen to the radio. Add to this a vibrant, warm lighting design by Michael O'Brien that draws the audience into the show, and the design truly serves the play's themes and messages.
Stage West has put together a technically sound, faithful production of The Real Thing. It's an enjoyable show, and as the play moves along there are moments of theatrical magic. Yet the missteps Stage West makes are mistakes that damage the believability and emotional resonance of the play. Tom Stoppard is a great wordsmith and an unrivaled wit but The Real Thing isn't like his previous absurdist works. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Travesties, The Real Thing applies Stoppard's literary conventions to raw, unfiltered emotions and the realities of love, se*, and marriage. Stage West focuses its energy on the words and not the truth behind them and the audience is left slightly amused but completely empty.
Stage West Theatre, 821/823 W Vickery Blvd , Fort Worth, Texas 76104
Plays through April 29th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm
For ticket pricing or more information visit www.stagewest.org or call 817-784-9378.