Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing begins the game with a curveball: Max (Lee Mark Nelson) discovers evidence of apparent infidelity on the part of his wife Charlotte (Sally Wingert), and, logically enough, confronts her about it. Yet there is something oddly stilted about their interaction, which isn't clarified until the next scene, when we learn that the two are merely actors performing a work by playwright Henry (Jay Goede). The second twist? Henry is making Max a cuckold in real life, conducting a happily saucy affair with his actress wife Annie (Kathryn Meisle). Hall of mirrors duly constructed.
The Real Thing then ventures into a heady meditation on love and authenticity, a drama that plays out over several years and resembles nothing less than a Russian matrushka in structure. It's a work that meanders while trying to find its own heart, though this Joe Dowling-directed production achieves a brainy intensity that successfully raises the deepest questions of how real are our loves, and perhaps our selves.
In an early scene, Charlotte complains (and Wingert is acerbic squared) about the crap parts her husband Henry writes for her. A similar claim could be credibly leveled at this play. Although Meisle redeems the squishy Annie with an appealing lightness, achieving the difficult trick of making her work look easy, the truth is that Stoppard stockpiles the best lines for Henry. The irony of having bedded the wife of the actor he has cast as a betrayed husband isn't lost on Henry; indeed, irony has by this point replaced blood in his circulatory system.
It's a delicious role for Goede: the playwright as the cleverest man in the room, one whose every utterance seems to have been polished and edited before it leaves his lips. Goede has a completely impressive facility with Henry's almost lyric manner of speech, and he's also genuinely funny. Henry tears Max apart early on with obvious relish, talking circles around him and piling on the droll condescension and mockery. Nelson is moving in his small role (one thinks of Max long after he's gone, wondering where Nelson would have taken his portrayal), and in this scene signals second-banana status with solicitousness before a muted explosion. It ends with him delivering Max's devastating line to Henry: "You've got something missing."
And it's true, of course. Henry shacks up with Annie and starts writing schlock to cover his alimony. Almost inevitably he sees Annie start to slowly drift away. His glibness, and his ability to waft about a dozen feet over humdrum human concern, are taken by those who love him as a form of indifference (go figure). Goede adroitly conveys the dawning sense of a man who must change, or at least come to terms with the aspect of himself that doused the love of his wife and is pushing away his lover. He's a character who announces, "I don't know how to write love," then finds himself turning into a sort of existential romantic when he gets a glimpse of the yawning abyss of life lived without it.
It's all terribly grown-up stuff. Dowling's direction steers it toward a tight immediacy by smoothing some of the rough edges of Stoppard's plot development. (Annie's later dalliance is crucial to how Henry changes, but a subplot involving a churlish soldier/prisoner is a clunker only partially rescued by Stoppard's excellent dialogue.) It's also a work that takes place entirely in interior spaces, and the Guthrie's new proscenium—big, stately, and red, like a dignified Madam—is ideal for its staging.
Henry and Charlotte's teenage daughter Debbie at one point provides some spot-on criticism of the play she inhabits: "Infidelity among the architect class...again." Her point is well taken. And Stoppard in particular has a proclivity for turning human reality into an intellectual jigsaw puzzle; he can't stop himself, apparently, even in a work that seems designed to counter charges of sterile game playing. But in The Real Thing he talks about love without sounding like a dimwit, one of the great challenges for any writer. And this production translates his work to the stage with ample wit, edge, and the right messy mixture of agony and the sublime. A love story, then, that emerges with its own tinge of the real from the intellectual stew. What more can one ask for, really?