When Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing first opened in London in 1982, it was like a boomerang-shaped arrow in a good liberal's quiver of self-induced guilt: lovely to shoot off, but it was going to come back at you and stick you in the ass. It was an undeniably beautiful play to watch, with unabashedly posh sets filled with bookcases and leather furniture, characters from the world of the theater drinking good wine and speaking glittering, witty dialogue in shapely cadences that the English stage hadn't heard since Oscar Wilde, a plot about topics dear to the hearts of the middle-class—adultery, creativity, the irrelevance of political activity—long, earnest speeches from its main character (and Stoppard stand-in) Henry about the dignity of high art and marital love, and a subplot featuring an it's-all-bullocks-wot? playwright of the working classes that ends with the wanker getting a vegetable dip shoved in his face. Take that, Stoppard seemed to say to the angry-young-men school of theater that had been around since the 1950s and had gotten reinvigorated by punk: the bourgeoisie is back!
Perfect timing, then, that the play opened on Broadway in 1984, when New York was in the midst of its longest, gaudiest stock market spree since the 1920s: to hell with the left, here was a play that made being well-off and insular attractive again. Trouble is, irony aside, The Real Thing is great theater. Its language does snap and glitter, Henry's speeches about exclusive romantic love are credibly idealistic, and the play does give the lie to the P.C.-driven agitprop dramatic impulse that's littered contemporary theater with so much crap these last couple of decades. It's unapologetically philosophical in theme—it's about how our real lives are so shot through with staginess and theatricality that it's hard to tell the real thing from the fake—and, its playful meta-theatrics aside, it comes down squarely on the side of authenticity, love and the necessity of learning "self-knowledge through pain."
And like all great plays, it's hard as hell to pull off. South Coast Repertory is the latest OC theater to have a go, and though director Martin Benson and his cast are their usual professional selves, there doesn't seem to be anything animating the production beyond the desire to keep the theater open and working. It's a workout for actors—you've got to know how to convincingly portray creative, intelligent, articulate people—and most of the players here do decent jobs, especially Bill Brochtrup (Henry) and Natacha Roi (Annie)—but you can see the cast, and the production itself, too often fall back on the easy mannerisms and actorly business that get a play over its rough spots.
Which is a shame, because Stoppard's play demands realistic intensity of an unusual order: the audience has to believe that the characters are searching for "the real thing"—real love, real art, genuinely motivated—but this is hard to do when the actors keep "acting" in such conventional ways. Benson and his cast haven't managed to find a way to keep the speeches from being speechy, or the quick-witted dialogue from seeming merely quick-witted. Though, yes, the play's about the interpenetration of the real and the theatrical, the entire play is in the end reaching for moments of genuineness—which are always defined as anti-theatrical, as not "acting" but "being"—but we never forget that acting is precisely (and merely) what's going on onstage. We keep waiting and hoping, but we never get the real thing.
The Real Thing at the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory Theater, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues., 7:30 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3:20 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through June 25. $28-58.