ALL ABOUT ADULTS and adultery, Tom Stoppard's Broadway smash "The Real Thing" gives us grownups being "grown up": cruel, funny, hypocritical, drinking, having affairs and always wondering if they've got "the real thing."
The drama, with its lacerating comedy, travels familiar terrain, but as usual Stoppard has it all over the competition in the wit and wordplay division.
In this crisply acted touring production, without the distracting glamor of Broadway stars Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, the attention reverts to the play, which is a compensatory pleasure.
Acutely directed by Mike Nichols, "The Real Thing" is a typically clever Stoppard construction. The play opens with a man building a house of cards. His wife enters and knocks it down. This turns out to be a scene from the play Henry is writing about "adultery among the architect class," and the actors are his wife Charlotte and best friend Max. Well . . . Henry is involved with Max's wife Annie, an earthy actress, and the two are carrying on beneath their spouses' noses -- the danger making the thrill sweeter. Henry moves out and marries Annie, beginning the cycle of suspicious minds yet again. And so on.
Stoppard sees contemporary lovers as threatened by constant temptation, and wonders whether love is strong enough to withstand the inevitable pain of betrayal, whether there are, as Charlotte says, really "no commitments, only bargains, and they have to be made every day." In Stoppard's view, one-on- one love is the last refuge in a world where everyone "knows" everyone else.
Stoppard speaks through the complex Henry, who rewrites his life into his scripts. Henry "has all the words," is always prepared with a stinging comeback, at the ready with a shield of wicked wit. A charming, self-contradictory snob, he can't bear a faulty sentence construction and hates "stupidity made coherent," but dotes on the cheap sentiment of '60s pop trash like Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. This gives Stoppard occasion to take a devastatingly funny swipe at high-minded opera fanatics.
Though he affects ironic detachment, Henry is really "the last romantic." He considers himself above jealousy but is consumed by it. And though he abhors cliches, he finds himself reliving the very soap opera stuff he skewers in his scripts. The character also expresses Stoppard's own obvious love for language in a passionate speech that should be included in every English textbook.
As Henry, Brian Bedford is perhaps closer to the character Stoppard envisioned than the cooler, younger Irons. Handsome but weathered, Bedford has a lived-in look, a visible intelligence and amused eyes that don't entirely mask Henry's pain. As Annie, Sara Botsford is less convincing, and the necessary erotic tension between the two is not apparent. More successful is the pairing of Bedford and Marianne Owen, as Charlotte. The duo perfectly executes the comfortable, slightly bitchy banter and private shorthand of people who share the private knowledge of marriage.
THE REAL THING -- At the National Theater through June 16.