Tom Stoppard, discussing his 1982 play "The Real Thing" with critic Mel Gussow, said he wrote the piece because "I liked the idea of the game" designed into its construction.
The fun Stoppard had with the writing translated into fun in the viewing. Introduced in London, the script then was given a 1984 Broadway production directed by Mike Nichols and headlined by Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. The star power, harnessed to a masterful staging, made the New York presentation one of the must-see shows of its era. A play that was genuinely playful, it toyed with theatergoers' minds as it messed around with reality and frolicked through all sorts of wordplay.
A revival at South Coast Repertory sets out to relive the good times. Yet while this production, directed by company artistic director Martin Benson, looks pretty much OK on the surface, it opened Friday lacking both the free-spirited breeziness and gripping emotion of which the play is capable.
The story begins with a teaser that soon has the audience wondering what is real and what isn't. A depiction of presumed marital infidelity, this scene sets up Stoppard's central topic, love, as well as his pivotal play on words: When is it the real thing?
While theatergoers are still working out who's really who and what's really what, they are introduced to a writer, Henry (played by Bill Brochtrup), and the two women who will spur his discoveries in this area, Charlotte (Pamela J. Gray) and Annie (Natacha Roi).
What does love look like? We're taught to think that it's the image of happy domesticity presented by Max (Martin Kildare), an actor in Henry's newest play, who on a social visit to Henry's home contentedly cradles an arm around his wife as he snuggles against her. A reversal of fortunes quickly shows us that Max was mistaken about love, and Stoppard's game-playing continues in earnest.
The accents for this Britain-set story sound mostly phony, but the designs -- evoking the 1980s setting -- look mostly right, from the leather-and-chrome furniture decorating Ralph Funicello's sets to the boots, bohemian skirts and leather-and-chrome new wave accessories characteristic of Angela Balogh Calin's costumes.
Roi, as Annie, contributes the production's most lived-in performance. The actress, seen at SCR last year as the forensic anthropologist in "Vesuvius," is particularly riveting during an early scene in which she watches a panicked Henry sink ever deeper into mean-spirited blathering. The fascination, disappointment and wariness that play across her face convey volumes about a woman who finds herself wondering whether she really knows much about the person with whom she's fallen in love.
Here as elsewhere, the real story lurks between the words. Commentaries on writing, taste, social consciousness and any number of other topics are cunningly layered into the text. The words are important, but what's still more vital is how they're delivered, along with the nonverbal responses they elicit.
Benson and his performers err mostly in having unearthed too little of this subtext -- a matter that is all the more perplexing given the talent of the actors involved, particularly that of Gray, who made such a strong impression last year as the wasted-away lost love in the Ahmanson's "Dead End," and of Brochtrup, familiar from TV's "NYPD Blue" as well as such recent stage appearances as "Pera Palas" at the Boston Court.
Ever the game-player, Stoppard challenges performers as well as audiences in such time-traveling, reality-shifting plays as "Arcadia" and in such populist fare as his screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." "The Real Thing" is eminently worthy of revival, even when a theater has previously presented it, as SCR did in a 1987 production directed by Lee Shallat, and even when more recent Stoppard works, including "Indian Ink" and "The Invention of Love," as yet await area premieres.
But SCR does little service to "The Real Thing" in giving it a presentation that leaves viewers wondering what made the play so special in the first place.
'The Real Thing'
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: June 25
Price: $28 to $58
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes