What is real love?

By Ande Jacobson

Well known British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, born Tomáš Straüssler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, has a reputation for his writing and romances not unlike Henry’s, the main character in his play The Real Thing currently running at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View.

In the partially autobiographical story, Henry (Michael Champlin) is an extremely witty playwright who is fixated on the proper and exacting use of language.  He’s taken with his passions, and yet, all the while he remains somewhat befuddled by the concept or advent of true love.  Intellectually, he understands the principle, but he has a difficult time finding the right words to either express it, or even describe it.  On the other hand, he’s an elitist when it comes to viewing anyone else’s writing, and few can live up to his standards.  Interestingly, everyone else in the story has some deficiency related to love.  For the audience, it’s challenging keeping track of who’s with whom and which is truly “The Real Thing” both in love and in distinguishing real life from fiction given Stoppard’s use of the play within the play device.

The remainder of the cast includes several other colorful characters.  Max (Fred Pitts) appears to be an architect when we first meet him while we watch him building a house of cards on his desk next to a set of plans wrapped around his T-square before the house lights dim.  Charlotte (Lucy Littlewood) is an actor also wrapped up in the complexities of love.  Annie (Carla Pauli) is an activist set on freeing a political prisoner held for vandalizing a government monument.  Debbie (Madeline Napel) is Henry’s daughter, full of cynical insights and commentary on love, sex, and monogamy.  Billy (Robert Sean Campbell) is another actor caught in between real life and fiction, and finally Brodie (Brandon Leland) is the prisoner Annie is trying to get released.

Director Ray Renati’s choices in casting take advantage of each actor’s strengths, and he’s given them license to own their characters.  The play is intended to take place in the UK, and Renati stays true to the writing.  This is no problem for Littlewood given her native speech includes the proper accent.  The rest of the cast members have to adopt the diction of the play while managing heavy line loads sprinkled with some lengthy and heartfelt monologues.

Champlin appears the most effortless in his delivery, and he takes a bit of the edge off the written character making him slightly more human and approachable than Stoppard’s prose would suggest.  Pitts too plays an authentic character, although he dropped some of his lines in one scene on opening night.  Given the nature of that scene, he was still believable as his mildly inebriated character.

Littlewood is delightful as she fully embraces Charlotte’s sardonic wit and lands the tenser comedic lines with unabashed fervor.  Pauli plays a more serious and dramatic Annie.  She seems a little forced in places, while she’s gentle and touching in others particularly in a few poignant scenes with Champlin.  Her British accent falls short, but she has an exotic appeal that makes it work.

Campbell is likeable and draws on his training from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to add some authenticity to his portrayal, especially in his diction as he covers two distinct dialects.  His physical scenes are a bit tentative, but they fit the situation.

The real surprise is Napel’s Debbie, a minor but critical role for the development of the plot and for Henry’s later revelations.  While only a high school senior, Napel’s interactions and delivery are natural and impressively authentic down to her demeanor and accent.  Debbie’s insights stick with Henry – e.g. “Exclusive rights isn’t love, it’s colonization” – which he later brings up in another context.

One of the challenges with presenting this play, particularly in a small space like The Pear, is to execute the set changes for the myriad locations without unduly slowing the tempo to crawl.  Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti has created a basic framework of an upstage partitioned drape and window outline that never changes, but the furniture and props do, or at least they change relative positions.  Some of the set changes are a bit lengthy owing to the traffic patterns in moving the larger pieces of furniture off and on.

Renati also handled the sound design for this production, which not only includes a variety of sound effects, but also includes several specific recordings of both classical and rock music.  The music is not only played at key moments during the action, it carefully covers most of the scene changes.  Particularly appealing to the musician in this reviewer is the injection of the music being discussed during an Act 2 exchange between Henry and Annie comparing J. S. Bach’s “Air on a G String” to the progressive rock favorite Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” as Henry claims that Bach stole the theme “and he can’t even get it right.”

While The Real Thing is a somewhat convoluted trip exploring the fluidity of relationships trying to get to the core of defining real love and real life, it is an interesting production that will garner discussion and self reflection.  More importantly, it’s a play well worth seeing.

What:  The Real Thing

Where:  Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043

When:  Continues through 18 November, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM.

See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

Photo supplied courtesy of The Pear.

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