The Plays the Thing

Photo by Jay FraleyIs it possible that in the realm of emotion where we desire to be the most sincere—let's call it love—that realm where we're dying to peel away the affectations and the roles we and the lover play in order to get to the “heart of the matter,” the penetralium, the “real thing”—is it possible that it's in that realm that we do the most acting, the most affecting, the most lying, that it's there that the heart of the matter and the real thing are at their most endlessly convoluted and elusive?

And then: Is it possible that in the realm of discourse where we desire to be the most honest—let's call it the art of the stage—that realm where both artist and audience are dying to drop the dread evasions of ordinary speech and behavior in order to cut straight to the truth, to “the real thing”—is it possible that it's in that realm where we encounter the most fictionalizing, the most affectation, the most lying and unreality?

Well, yeah, on both counts.

That's elementary Shakespeare, in fact, where life's a stage where we strut and fret, and where a play—not, say, good Danish detective work—is the thing to catch the conscience of a king. And so it shouldn't be a surprise that Tom Stoppard, the British playwright who name checked the Bard in his breakout play, RosencrantzandGuildensternAreDead, and whose most popular success has been the screenplay for ShakespeareinLove, would decide to center a play on a Shakespearean obsession—with the ways love and acting partake of one another.

The play, TheRealThing,originally produced in 1982 and currently playing at Rude Guerrilla's small space in downtown Santa Ana, is a sparklingly witty bit of quicksilver meta-theater, where some scenes we think are “real”—that is, acted by actors playing characters whom we're to think of as real—turn out to be scenes acted by actors playing characters acting a play within the play we're watching. It's filled with stirring speeches about what makes good theater and what makes good love, and sometimes a speech about one will apply just as well to the other. (When one character begins to rhapsodize about a cricket bat, watch for the play to achieve a high luster.) The philosophical ground Stoppard covers isn't new, but his agile delivery of the premise and the sprezzatura of his dialogue are beautiful things to behold.

Also damn hard to pull off. Director Alex Rodriguez has designed the set in the most minimalist of ways—a black couch and a few pieces of ragged furniture against a black wall are about it—which clashes with the high bourgeois proceedings: a successful playwright and three actors lounging around drinking champagne, talking art in Hyde Park English, and seducing one another. (Rude Guerrilla doesn't have the space or the funds to mount haute bourgeois proceedings, granted, but that's a good reason to mount a different play.) And Rodriguez hasn't gotten hold of the menace behind the characters' sophistication. Either the characters are too obvious in the ways they telegraph their aggressions, or else they're not obvious enough and the play feels sentimentally soggy, with all that champagne swigging giving a Noel Coward-y aftertaste.

Melissa Petro, as Annie, an actress who steals Henry the playwright from his first wife, has some of the emotional gravitas needed to convey the complexity of a woman hounded by infidelity, jealousy, and the demands of art and politics. The other characters: not so much. Richard De Vicariis, who plays Henry, the central character with easily the best lines, needs to have a lean and sinuous majesty whose cynicism slowly gives way to a belief in the power of love, but De Vicariis doesn't have the look or the chops to pull it off. He plays the weary playwright as a callow fussbudget. The play's pretty intellectually challenging, but Rodriguez and his company find themselves barely keeping their English accents afloat, leaving Stoppard's formidable dramatic insights to sink of their own weight.

The Real Thing at Rude Guerrilla Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through July 16. $10-$18.

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