Vows do not mean much to Henry, the adulterous playwright at the center of “The Real Thing.” But words do. He’s so high-minded about language, in fact, that he refuses to help his second wife, Annie, in her efforts to whip into shape a terrible play by a rough young man whom he considers devoid of talent.
“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are,” Henry declares in Tom Stoppard’s formulaically droll 1982 comedy, about the knots in which desire and doubt tie us up and twist our sense of loyalty. Or is Henry’s self-righteous pronouncement a dodge? Does he reject her request because he’s more conflicted about his writing life than he lets on? Or is it that, mindful of his own experiences with seduction, he suspects that by proffering his red pencil he might be giving comfort to a potential enemy?
As he has before and since in more elegantly constructed plays, Stoppard builds a vehicle here for looking at why we do for love what we do; his métier for the occasion is modern marriage. And for the most part, Studio Theatre satisfies the dramatist’s demands for intelligent design, in director David Muse’s well-considered staging, and in the plummy English (and Scottish) accents of a cast headed by Teagle F. Bougere and Annie Purcell.
Occasionally the requirements of relationship comedy nudge the Studio proceedings toward aridity. This is especially true in the longer second act, when — surprisingly for Stoppard — a confirmation of one of Henry’s intuitions is revealed in a rather clumsily facile manner. It’s an instance in which the politics of “The Real Thing” come across as pushy and self-serving, in ways that are reminiscent of recent works by another theater master, David Mamet.
Thankfully, though, Henry is kept at a healthy distance from canonization in “The Real Thing,” and Studio’s production, on the whole, is a reasonably substantive offering for Stoppard lovers and other playgoers who like language served in thick prime cuts.
The starring roles were first inhabited on Broadway by Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in 1984; Roger Rees and Felicity Kendal originated the parts of Henry and Annie before them in London. Scaled down for the close quarters of Studio’s second-floor Milton Theatre — James Noone’s carpeted turntable set has only a few sticks of contemporary furniture — the performances of Bougere and Purcell and the others don’t, of course, radiate the star wattage of their predecessors. But they are pleasingly assertive. One performance goes a step beyond, that of Enrico Nassi, making an electric Studio debut as Billy, a cocky young actor whom Annie meets on the train to Glasgow, where they’re both cast in a production of “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.” (That’s a 17th-century play in which the sexual attraction, between a brother and sister, is of a considerably more illicit variety.)
In the Milton — reconfigured for theater-in-the-round — the characters not only appear more down-to-earth; they’re also revealed to be not quite as nice as they’ve been made to seem in the past. That would include the 2000 Broadway revival with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle in the leads. Here, somehow, the betrayals that bring Henry and Annie together illuminate a deeper smugness in Henry and a darker restiveness in Annie, and in both an unflattering callousness less apparent in these other productions.
“The Real Thing” examines the quality of Henry and Annie’s perpetually strained relationship, after he abandons the first of his actress-wives, the exhausted Charlotte (Caroline Bootle Pendergast), and Annie devastates her actor-husband Max (Dan Domingues) with news of the affair. It’s partly because Pendergast and Domingues draw such well-defined and divergent portraits of longing and suffering that we’re able to examine the relationship between Henry and Annie a bit more critically.
What it is binding Henry and Annie to each other — Compatibility? Temperament? Sex? — forms the elusive core of the play. (At times, Henry is so wrapped up in himself, it feels as if words truly are the only thing he holds sacred.) Commitment is investigated in other forms: Annie is devoted to the cause of Brodie (Tim Getman), a Scottish anarchist imprisoned for the defacement of a monument, and she devotes herself to the task of getting produced a play he’s written that is rife with political banalities.
Stoppard riffs here on themes he returns to in other plays: a recurring one is pop music, and the intellectual Henry’s seeming philistinism: any day, he’ll take Herman’s Hermits over Bach. If you think, as others have suggested over the years, of this comedy as a Stoppardian detour, an attempt to write in a more commercial vein, I’d say I prefer his loftier compositions. It’s the likes of “Jumpers” and “Arcadia” that for me constitute the real thing.
By Tom Stoppard. Directed by David Muse. Set, James Noone; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; costumes, Kaye Voyce; sound, Matthew Nielson; dramaturgy, Lauren Halvorsen; dialects, Gary Logan. With Barrett Doss. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 30 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.