Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing

On the heels of its epic production of The Coast of Utopia, Main Street Theater produces a more intimate Tom Stoppard play.

By Michael Hardy September 5, 2013

Joe Kirkendall as Henry and Sara Gaston as Charlotte in The Real Thing

The Real Thing
Sep 5–29
Thu at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 3.
Main Street Theater
2540 Times Blvd.

Last year, Houston’s Main Street Theater undertook the heroic task of staging Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a three-part, nine-hour play about nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals. Main Street’s production was the first American staging of the play since its 2006 debut at New York’s Lincoln Center, and required a special round of fundraising to cover the extra cost of staging such an ambitious work of theater. So when Executive Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden and her staff went looking for another Stoppard work to produce this year, they chose a play from earlier in the playwright’s career, the intimate 1982 masterpiece The Real Thing. With only seven characters and relatively straightforward stage directions, the play was a relief from the epic Coast of Utopia. And unlike many of Stoppard’s plays, no knowledge of political philosophy or cutting-edge science was necessary.

“You don’t have to bring any particular body of knowledge to it,” Udden says. “It has some mind games, and the closer you pay attention the more fun it will be for you, but it isn’t the mental decathlon that some of his other plays are.”

The Real Thing opens with a man accusing his wife of adultery and the wife stalking off in disgust. We soon realize that the man and his “wife” are in reality acting out a scene written by Stoppard’s protagonist and doppelgänger, Henry. The woman is actually Henry’s wife, Charlotte, and the man is Max, Henry’s friend, with whose wife Annie Henry is having an affair. Confused? You’re supposed to be, although things soon get (more or less) straightened out. Despite the play-within-a-play conceit, The Real Thing is actually Stoppard at his most traditional. Audiences expecting the postmodern word games and dazzling displays of erudition for which Stoppard is famous may be surprised by the play’s sincerity.

“We didn’t have to learn any special scientific philosophies, we didn’t have to understand particle physics,” Udden says. “It’s just people—it’s just human relationships.”

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