Only the set falls flat in the sparkling The Real Thing

The first scene in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is between a husband and the wife he suspects of adultery. She has just returned from a purported business trip to Switzerland, which he believes she never took. The dialogue is swift and urbane, with wry ruminations on digital watches, the Japanese and whales. He airs his suspicions; she leaves.

The set consists of three playing areas — a sort of closet-y, backstage space flanked by two living rooms. The woman walks into the center space, shrugs on a robe and enters the second living room. And, lo, there's her husband. A different husband. This is the home that Charlotte shares with her playwright husband, Henry, and the first scene turns out to be from one of his plays, House of Cards. There's more dialogue, still very witty, but not quite as self-consciously so. In fact, Charlotte will ruthlessly deconstruct House of Cards pretty soon. The man from the first scene enters with his wife. He's Max, she's Annie; both are actors. These comfortably upper-middle-class people feel familiar: We encountered something like them in Pinter's play about the pitfalls and sorrows of marriage, Betrayal.

Henry has been invited to be on Desert Island Discs, a radio show where celebrity guests pick the musical works they'd most want with them if they were stranded. Henry's having a bit of a hard time with this, since he'd rather the public didn't know he prefers pop to classical music — and not, he hastens to add, in a brilliantly postmodern way. He comes up with a wonderful little canter about having once been dragged to Covent Garden to see Maria Callas and coming out still preferring the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" — which he calls "the most haunting, the most deeply moving noise ever produced by the human spirit."

Barbra Andrews and Sam Gregory in The Real Thing.
E. Tyler
Barbra Andrews and Sam Gregory in The Real Thing.

Of course, there are adulterous undercurrents. Annie and Henry are in love. She's reckless, impatient and trendily idealistic, having taken up the cause of Brodie, a young Scottish anarchist she met on a train who's now in trouble for setting fire to the wreath of the Unknown Soldier on London's Cenotaph. What Brodie was protesting remains unclear; playwright Stoppard doesn't have a lot of sympathy for leftist agitators, as we realize when Brodie actually appears later in the play. Charlotte takes Henry and Annie's affair in stride, but Max's response is nothing like that of the urbane character he played in House of Cards. He falls messily, miserably apart.

By the second act, Henry and Annie have moved in together, and as their lives go forward, Henry is forced to face the questions suggested by the title: What is love? How do you settle into a long-term commitment when your partner is faithless, feral Annie — whom, nonetheless, he desperately loves. Henry would like to write a play about love more grounded than House of Cards, but in the face of the real thing, words fail him. Annie has taken on a play written by Brodie, and she wants Henry to rewrite it. He balks. He points out that the thing is rubbish. He comes up with an eloquent speech about art, which — charges of elitism be damned — does indeed require insight, talent and verbal agility. But Brodie's is the more authentic life, Annie urges, and deserving of expression. Listening to them argue, you can't help remembering Henry's own tastes in music, his vehement preference for the immediate and down-to-earth over high art.

The genius of the play is in the coruscating dialogue, and the Paragon cast is certainly up to it. Sam Gregory is terrific as Henry, a peevish intellectual groping with things he can't control and that his ferocious intelligence hasn't prepared him for. Barbra Andrews makes Annie minxy rather than sexy, and she's fascinating to watch. Emily Paton Davies — an actress we haven't seen enough of lately — is both warm and sensible as Charlotte, and Warren Sherrill gives Max interest and complexity. But there's a problem: The dance studio that Paragon is currently using was never set up as a theater. The company made it work for The Sound of a Voice, because the action in that play is so focused and physical. But for this production, the space dissipates sound — and the set's flat plane doesn't help. So when you go — and you should — try to snag a seat in the front row. If you can't hear every word, you're not getting The Real Thing.

The Real Thing

 
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