One can most reliably emphasize something by comparing it to something else. In art, as with all things, we tend to situate contrasting elements near one another (whether they are ideas, colors, themes, etc.) to emphasize the strength in one or both aspects. Likewise, this juxtaposition can bring to light the similarities found in two noticeably and fundamentally different concepts, and vice versa. However, this positioning of ideas/themes/etc. can be problematic when the strength of one showcases the weakness found in another.
The Austin Playhouse’s production of Sir Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical play, The Real Thing, follows a pair of lovers in London, one a playwright and the other an actress, as they break away from their respective marriages to live together against the thematic backdrops of love, marriage, infidelity, literary merit, and the blurring of reality and fiction.
Beginning with a play-within-a-play scene, The Real Thing quickly establishes its intentions to blur the lines of truth and fiction, thus preparing the audience to question to truth in what the characters say to one another. Most of this comes in the form of Henry (David Stahl) and his lover Annie (Andrea Osborn) as their certainty in one another wavers. Stahl and Osborn lead the majority of the production (with at least one of them in all but the first scene), and have a strong grasp of the proper and refined Londoners they play, offering the audience honest laughs as they recite Sir Stoppard’s classy wit. Scenes in which they socialize pleasantly with each other and the rest of the cast feel natural and eloquent. However, troubles arise during intense moments, in which Stahl and Osborn often did not muster the intensity to emphasize their situation. More than once I was only made aware of the severity of a scene a decent way through it because the actors struggled to detach themselves from the pleasantries expressed in earlier scenes. In a play populated by individuals who straddle the line of reality and fiction it was difficult to tell when we were meant to take moments seriously, oftentimes wondering if the characters are sincere or merely acting. It’s a pity for they are excellent in portraying British pleasantries, but these strengths only showcase their weaknesses in their heavier scenes.
The supporting cast, led by Bernadette Nason as Charlotte and Samuel Knowlton as Max, create a sturdy base for the show, though their seldom appearances after the beginning of the play leave more to be desired. However, with The Real Thing taking place in England, the use of British and Scottish accents are present. Most of them speak quite eloquently, but the cast of minor characters’ accents are noticeably awkward and not refined compared to the rest of the cast, leading to clunky conversations and breaks from the play’s immersion.
The design of the show was decent all-around. The costumes and lighting (Buffy Manners and Don Day respectively) never felt unnatural or embellished, lending their worth to the production without stealing the audience’s attention. Mike Toner’s set design is where the design shines brightest. The similar layouts of the various London flats, as well as the rotating walls creating an almost patchwork feel to the smooth architecture served the show perfectly both as a means to set the scene physically as well as thematically lend itself to the reality vs. fiction aspects of the production (i.e. not making it immediately apparent that the initial set the audience views as they enter the theatre is fictional within the play itself). However, the set changes themselves created a prolonged distraction which sometimes felt unnecessary. A few scenes in The Real Thing are scarcely a minute or two in length, and it felt unnecessary to create a full set change for something so brief. It feels as though director Don Toner could have maintained the flow of the production by not depending on a set for every scene, and trusting in the audience’s capacity to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the scene regardless.
When it’s all said an done, don’t let these issues stop you from seeing the show. The concerns I had with the play were only as noticeable as they were because of their juxtaposition with the strengths found as well. I’m looking forward to the rest of The Austin Playhouse’s 2015-2016 season, but The Real Thing may not have been their strongest step forward to start their theatrical year.
The Austin Playhouse’s The Real Thing continues playing every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 5 pm until October 11th.
★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩