Friday, November 14, 2014

Review of "The Real Thing" by Tom Stoppard - Presented by Bad Habit Productions

"Loving and being loved is unliterary."  That phrase pretty much sums up the dilemma facing several of the characters in Tom Stoppard's classic play "The Real Thing."  This play is being revived on Broadway with an all-star cast, but the cast that Bad Habit Productions has assembled under the direction of A. Nora Long for this Boston production need not take a back seat to anyone, for they are universally excellent in their roles.

It was clear to me from the start why this play has had such a long shelf life, and why Bad Habit chose it as part of its 8th season.,  Stoppard's creative and poetic use of language and his insights into complex relationships have kept him near the top of the heap of playwrights writing in the English language.

Tom Stoppard

This is a production that must be seen.  Shelley Barish has created a simple and flexible set that is often quickly converted from a living room to a train traveling between London and Glasgow and back again to a living space without disrupting the smooth flow of Stoppard's compelling narrative.   Costumes by Bridgette Hayes, precise dialect coaching by Crystal Lisbon and sound design by Chris Larson create an ecosystem in which the actors flourish and their characters spring into vibrant life.

Here is how Bad Habit sets the scene for the action and premise of this two act play:

"In the business of show, the lines between fact and fiction are not always easy to navigate. When brilliant but dim writer Henry falls in love with dim but brilliant Annie (a married actress who is not his wife), he goes on a journey that constantly confounds his own understanding of the value of love, fidelity, and art. This backstage comedy is both smart and full of heart."

As interesting as is Stoppard's plot about the complexities of love and faithfulness, what really makes this play and this production soar is the chemistry that sizzles among the characters  Passions of lust and jealousy, distrust, empathy and forgiveness are stirred together into a boiling cauldron of smart dialogue and physical interactions that are sometimes shocking and always memorable.  The playwright has given these actors vehicles for driving home the many plot points, and they drive those vehicles with precision and ferociousness.  The scenes that represent mini-plays within the larger play add texture and levels of interest that I found fascinating - art imitating life imitating art.

The players are:
  • William Bowry as Billy/Brodie - We learn about this incarcerated Scottish firebrand long before he ever appears on stage, for Annie has decided to take him under her wing and help him become a writer.  Mr. Bowry's seething rage coupled with the ineluctable charm of a Lothario make his scenes indelible.  This is an actor who radiates the savage energy of a young Marlon Brando, and he promises to be a force to be reckoned with on the waterfront of the Boston theater scene for the foreseeable future.
  • Shanae Burch as Debbie - Her time on stage is short, but in her key scene in which the rebellious teenage daughter is about to run off with her sketchy boyfriend, she makes a strong impression.
  • Courtland Jones as Annie - As she toggles back and forth among the men in her life - Max, Henry and Brodie - she establishes a character who is enigmatic, bold and intriguing.  She commands our attention whenever she is on stage, and her performance is a highlight of this production.
  • R. Nelson Lacey as Max - He shines in the opening scene in which he accuses Charlotte of adultery.  We later learn that he is an actor playing a role in a play written by Henry.  In real life, he loses his wife, Annie, to Henry.
  • Gillian Mackay-Smith as Charlotte - She is powerful as the cynical and angry wife accused of adultery in the first scene.  Her character is totally different as the real life wife of Henry, who is about to leave her for Annie.  Ms. Smith shows great range in portraying women who are both tough skinned and vulnerable.
  • Bob Mussett as Henry - This is the best work I have seen this actor deliver.  As the playwright Henry, his long monologue about the importance of precise language in writing, using a cricket bat to illustrate his points, is another highlight of this production.
When it comes time to bestow awards for this season of Boston theater, this production should merit mention in several categories.  It can be seen through November 23 at The Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA.

Bad Habit Productions Website



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