Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" at the National Theatre isn't quite.
You will no doubt relish the play for its literacy, its wit and its ingeniousness, but you may also sense that something is lacking in the touring edition, which opened a four-week run last night.
After all, "The Real Thing" took New York by storm last season, scooping up Tony awards along the way. This version takes Washington by drizzle. It is milder, gentler, less emotionally charged. Although the work contains some of Stoppard's most articulate dialogue -- about infidelity in both marriage and art -- it sounds almost glib without the passionate underpinnings.
It is all too easy to say that what "The Real Thing" is missing is its New York stars -- Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. A good play -- and this is a good play -- has the built-in elasticity that allows it to accommodate a range of performers and temperaments. And the National company has the reputable services of Brian Bedford and Canadian actress Sara Botsford.
Bedford, in fact, is perfect for one aspect of his character, a playwright named Henry who has achieved success writing facile comedies about wayward wives and jealous husbands. When it comes to words, Henry is quick on the draw -- a man of a thousand puns and the declared enemy of cliche'. He uses language with the agility of a fencing master, and his feints and thrusts are as graceful as they are sometimes wounding. Bedford is right at home here: he juggles language with aplomb, manages to make sarcasm sound amiable, or at least polite, and rallies entertainingly to the defense of standards without ever capitulating to professorial priggishness.
Botsford, too, has qualities, as Annie, the actress for whom Henry will desert his wife and child. Tall and handsome with a lovely mane of red hair, she is a commanding creature to behold. Botsford makes it clear that Annie can't be bullied, that she is her own woman. But behind the Amazonian facade, there are hints of confusion, an appealing softness.
Put the two stars together, however, and not a lot happens. The extraordinary chemistry that erupted whenever Irons and Close ventured within touching distance is all but absent from this production. And the chemistry is critical to the play's functioning. Stoppard, you see, is asking himself what happens when language fails, when it no longer serves to keep a relationship together and emotions in their place, when a man and a woman are reduced to the raw, inexpressible realities of their union.
"You've got something missing," Henry is chided early in the play. "You may have all the words, but having all the words is not what life's about." Henry will careen headlong into that truth, when Annie takes up briefly with a fellow actor who's appearing opposite her in a production of " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore."
What gives "The Real Thing" its dramatic force is that tension between its glittering verbal surface and those dark, confused emotions beyond the reach of words. If Henry and Annie's relationship is not palpable, instinctive, biological, "The Real Thing" can end up looking like one of the blithe plays that Henry himself churns out.
Unfortunately, Bedford is the least romantic of leading men, and when he crinkles up his face in pain, he tends to suggest a squinting pumpkin. The injured masculine sensitivity Irons brought to the role is not his; crisp, caustic comedy is what he does best. His passion for Annie seems to stop at fondness and at most carries the sexual charge of a warm cuddle. You never get the feeling that his whole being is implicated by her momentary faithlessness -- only his amour-propre. This, in turn, reduces Annie's philandering to casual -- far more manageable -- dimensions. The play is too accomplished to appear trivial, but this production can't entirely escape the accusation.
Just as duplicity is Stoppard's theme, it is also part of his method. One of his recurring tricks, in fact, is to lull us into a scene, convince us of its reality, then suddenly expose it as a scene from one of Henry's plays or one of the productions Annie is appearing in. The switch back and forth between the play and the plays-within-the-play is adroitly done. But it's not cleverness for cleverness' sake. Indeed, Stoppard is asking where theater leaves off and reality begins. His characters often debate which is more important in art -- form or content. But it is also the central question of their lives.
"The Real Thing" may be Stoppard's most elegant play, although it doesn't always look so in the National production. In adapting his sets for the road, Tony Walton has sacrificed some of their sumptuousness to efficiency, and the seamless direction of Mike Nichols appears to have come undone in a few spots. Marianne Owen and William McNulty offer competent support as the respective mates left by the wayside when Henry and Annie lock libidos. But Jon Tenney is fairly flavorless as the smoldering lower-class actor who lures Annie out of the conjugal nest, and Bennett Liss' portrayal of a proletarian playwright is banal.
Is a lack of ardor contagious? It does seem to have swept through this cast, reducing "The Real Thing" to a facsimile, if not a shadow, of its urgent self.
The Real Thing. By Thom Shoppard. Directed by Mike Nichols. Sets, Tony Walton; costumes, Anthea Sylbert; lighting, Tharon Musser. With Brian Bedford, Sara Botsford, William McNulty, Marianne Owen, Alice Haining, Jon Tenney, Bennett Liss. At the National Theatre through June 16.