A poorly written play is somewhat salvageable in the hands of a skilled cast and director. Conversely, a less than seasoned team can wreak havoc on even the most brilliant of works. So then, what happens when Austin Playhouse pits a top-notch cast against a renowned wordsmith in top form, each battling for aesthetic supremacy? The short answer is this: Everyone wins.
Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing eschews the traditional fare of absurdist theatre, repurposing it into a thoughtful, self-reflective "thinker's rom-com." Like many of his contemporaries, Stoppard finds success just outside the defining lines of the Theatre of the Absurd as often as he does within. This Eighties look at the true nature of infidelity and the artistic spirit is no exception. Here, the elements of existential crisis, lack of order, and "endings" find representation in the absolute chaos of love and trust – or lack thereof. Austin theatre veteran David Stahl plays Henry, a playwright reeling from the fear that his hit play House of Cards may be all the success he has left in him. Stahl owns every moment of a character clearly based on Stoppard himself (complete with a nod to "that Sartre play") and exudes beautiful chemistry with his co-stars. Sharing the stage with Stahl is Bernadette Nason, the only genuine Brit of the bunch (though you would never know that, thanks to some sterling dialect work). As Henry's wife/ex-wife Charlotte, Nason brings the kind of charm and quiet dignity achievable only by an actor who fully understands the power of subtlety. Samuel Knowlton is delightful, playing characters spurned in both the play and the meta-play (that will make sense when you see it, trust me). Budding actor Annie, played with grace and glee by Andrea Osborn, moves in to take her place as Henry's lover and muse, and what follows is a jaunt of complexity, passion, and the tedium of attempting a life as both an artist and a "real" person.
As Stoppard's web grows ever tangled, we move from location to location on a set by Mike Toner, beautifully deceitful in its intricate simplicity. Several rotating walls transform the shape of the stage to fit different interiors, each creating a new floor plan that leaves an audience wondering what form the stage will take next. Although watching the stagehands Tetris the space into new locales is fascinating, it does draw one out of the story a bit – but as soon as Don Day's magnificent lighting comes up, the actors pull us right back in. Legendary costumer Buffy Manners drapes her actors to match their station, most notably removing the wig Osborn dons for the first act in favor of her natural, badass, pixie-esque hair for the second. Also impressive are Aaron Johnson, Marie Rose Fahlgren, and Stephen Mercantel, all playing characters appearing only briefly, but stealing the scenes in which they appear – no small feat, considering the actors from whom they steal.
When a playwright cleverly writes about his own life as a playwright and his clever writing, there is always the danger of spiraling into a self-referential rabbit hole: a Sorkin-esque wet dream, if you will. Even Joel Mercado-See's sound design is a delightful nod to the script itself. Director Don Toner keeps the team from tumbling, though. To revisit the prior analogy of cast vs. script, Toner expertly finds a balance here, nailing the fragile symbiosis between a stellar cast and script. Watching these heavy-hitters sublimely navigate the rapids of Stoppard's text is a remarkable sight. Toner has a well-earned reputation for being among the best at what he does and choosing scripts that serve his strengths as well as his audience. The Real Thing is without a doubt an enjoyable addition to that lexicon.
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