Tom Stoppard’s "The Real Thing" is about honesty in relationships and in art, so of course the focus of the action is on multiple adulteries and a writer reduced to writing television drama to pay alimony and a gussying up a piece of agit-prop theatre to placate his liberal leaning second wife. The general outline of the show uses play within a play in some surprisingly obvious and then again in more subtle thematic ways. Tom Stoppard has a reputation as a major wit and though it takes a while he doesn’t disappoint with a major piece on honesty in language and a cricket bat at the beginning of the second act.
The center of "The Real Thing" is the playwright Henry played by Jeff Grafton. Henry is actually a stand-in for Stoppard who like Henry was married to one actress and having an affair with another which led to divorce and remarriage. Jeff Grafton has an enormous capacity for being likeably, winsome and slightly silly. It’s not limitless and not without some repetition of effect, but close to it. The production, directed by Bruce Burgun, clearly challenges Grafton to reach below and through this talent to something perhaps less attractive, but quite real and touching. We’re rewarded with the effort.
Erin Ehlers played Henry’s first wife. It’s a character that always seemed fuzzy to me. It could be the writing or it could simply be that it’s always overshadowed by Henry’s presence. Lilia Vassileva was in sharper focus as the woman whom Henry leaves her for. It’s an interesting part especially as Vassileva showed the character’s evolution into a rather hard headedly complicated, but still loving person. Kyle Davis played the slightly shallow, but basically good guy she left behind. Branden Hayward was her attractively young, new guy on the side. Justine Salata played Henry’s growing up daughter. She had a nice scene and soliloquy on love at a definitely juvenile political level. Michael Aquirre did nicely as the thuggish political oaf for whom Henry had descended to do the political theatre work.
The IU production directed by Bruce Burgun is in the round in the Wells-Metz Theatre. A good deal of dialog gets lost, but isn’t that the way with much of what goes on around us? …. and the soliloquies were plenty clear. The stylish design is by Fred Duer and David Foster with costumes by Scott Anderson. Rob Shakespeare’s lighting design casts a variety of geometric patterns on the floor during set changes as the crew and furniture frequently flowed around the standing figure of Henry. A bit of lighting tour de force was the expansion of the flakes in a little snow scene globe swirling outward onto the floor. Josh Cooney’s sound design fitted around Henry’s choices in records but made comments of its own with the finale happening as the Monkees’ saccharine but knowing recording of "I’m a Believer" played.
Tom Stoppard’s "The Real Thing" continues at the Wells-Metz Theatre through Saturday with seven-thirty evening performances. There is also a two o’clock matinee on Saturday.