Touchstone Theatre

Like Vladimir Nabokov before him, Tom Stoppard is a master at literature as game playing. And I don’t mean the political games writers play in order to win grants and prizes and nice reviews from fellow logrolling writer-critics. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stoppard were good at those games too.) Stoppard simply excels at constructing plays that don’t for a moment pretend to be portrayals of the world realistic down to the smudge on the wall. His plays are tight little worlds unto themselves, alternate artistic universes with structures that often say as much as the dialogue about what the play is about.

In Artist Descending a Staircase, for example, which is about modern artists and their experimentation with concepts of time and space, Stoppard experiments with time. The scenes in the first act run in reverse chronological order–characters start the act as old men and end it as schoolboys–but in the second act, they run in the correct order. Stoppard’s structure creates a kind of staircase of scenes, which in turn is a joke about Duchamp’s seminal painting Nude Descending a Staircase, to which Stoppard alludes in the title.

In The Real Thing, Stoppard constructs a different dramatic machine to explore yet another idea–the ever-tricky relation of art and reality. Its cousin theme is the equally difficult question of when love is “the real thing” and when it’s an illusion. Stoppard approaches these twin themes in a series of plays within plays, all concerned with sexuality and fidelity, that constantly interrupt the main story, about a clever playwright named Henry who leaves his wife for another woman, marries her, then suspects that his second wife may have a lover.

Sometimes the quoted plays comment ironically on the action, as when a selection from Henry’s hit farce House of Cards introduces the real cuckold of Stoppard’s play as an actor playing a cuckolded husband. At other times Stoppard purposely misleads the audience, as when Henry’s second wife and the actor he suspects of swiving her play a pivotal seduction scene from John Ford’s Elizabethan drama ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (revealing too that Henry has ultraliterary tastes–naturally his wife would cheat on him in blank verse). But this infidelity, it turns out, is not “the real thing.”

Again like Nabokov, Stoppard is able to construct these extraordinarily clever, elaborate works, adding wheels within wheels and piling ironies atop ironies, and still his plays have a heart and his characters have souls. Though they’re caught in Stoppard’s postmodern machine, they remain genuinely real and complex. Of course, they have to be for Stoppard’s famous wit to be anything more than empty wordplay. The cuckolded husband’s quip when he finds his unfaithful wife’s unstamped passport–“I notice that you never went to Amsterdam when you went to Amsterdam”–wouldn’t be half so funny if we didn’t feel for him and his wounded pride.

Bringing The Real Thing to life onstage is not that different from making a classic French farce work. The trick is for the actors to find the right balance of pathos and broad comedy to make us both care about the characters and not care so much that we wince when they get caught in the comic machinery. This balancing act has not always come easily to Ina Marlowe’s actors. Earlier this season, Touchstone’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s mild farce Absurd Person Singular came undone because the actors played it a bit too realistically. This time, however, with a few notable exceptions, Marlowe has a cast that make the comedy fly.

The exceptions, interestingly, are two of Touchstone’s stronger serious actors: Melinda Moonahan (marvelous a season ago as Mother Courage) and Nick Polus (whose best role to date was the poor fool undone by love in Sister Carrie). Both play the sorrowful side of their characters–both of whom are abandoned in Stoppard’s story–so well that most of their witty lines fall flat. Happily, neither character appears in enough of the play to drag things down.

By contrast Kendall Marlowe’s Henry has a charming, boyish mischievousness about him that both contrasts with the character’s pedantic streak and gives him just enough distance from his problems to make him easy to laugh at (and with). Moira Brennan plays Henry’s second wife with the sort of bracing youthful energy and resilience that make you see immediately both why Henry desired her enough to wreck his first marriage and why he fears she’ll eventually leave him.

In fact most of the acting from Marlowe’s ensemble displays a sort of midsummerish lightness that dares us to laugh at what fools we mortals are, especially when sexuality rears its puckish head and inspires otherwise happy spouses to seek love in all the wrong places. It’s Stoppard’s final irony that playing the game of love right leads you nowhere, while a series of incredibly dumb moves can lead you to the real thing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Shay.