You really don't know love until you've heard the notion dissected and choked down, swallowed whole and half-digested, then regurgitated over and over again in Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." That's not to say, of course, that it isn't a pleasant, if liberally roving, meditation on all things hearts and flowers. Just don't expect Stoppard to wax poetic on Cupid's bow or the semantics of a warm embrace -- as his title indicates, it's not exactly puppy love he's interested in shoving under the microscope.
No, this is love of the very adult variety, a mired and messy affair that drifts somewhere between what we know and what we believe, and under David Muse's surgical exactitude, his new production at the Studio Theatre is every bit as technically clean as it is elegantly wrought.
Stoppard's 1982 opus on the nature of relationships and what is "real" between two people weaves a bit of a deceptive yarn, for what you may think is at first a nicely composed morality play quickly dissolves into a terse study of love and romance that minces marriage down to its bitter pulp. "There are no commitments, only bargains," Stoppard suggests, and if the substance of love is commitment, then perhaps we should all just be committed.
|'The Real Thing'|
|» Where: The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW|
|» When: Through June 30|
|» Info: $39 to $82; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org|
His premise is simple: How to reconcile a relationship borne out of dishonesty. When Henry, a successful London playwright, carries on an extramarital affair with Annie, the wife of one of his actors, both of their marriages end in divorce. They quickly re-marry each other, but their fidelity is tested by time and faith in the other.
Stoppard seems to intimate that the only way out of emotional pain is to go through it, and here Teagle F. Bougere turns in a shrewd performance conveyed with finesse. His Henry lends a sympathetic subtext to the stringent wordsmith who loves being in love -- a perfect portrayal of the author's vulnerable conceit. As the casual (and semi-autobiographical) observer of all things cerebral, Bougere nimbly demonstrates a man riding a tenuous seesaw between bouts of emotion and apathy.
Annie Purcell's Annie is the soothing antidote to Henry's hypercritical cynicism, and Purcell delivers the best of Stoppard's language, thick with British idioms and steeped in irony, with skillful aplomb. These are the kinds of characters who do not mirror the way most of us speak in real life -- these are keenly sculpted, studious people who swim in their own syntax, a reflecting pool of revealing confessions and clever bon mots. And as his couple trade barbs and wound each other with the precision of an EpiPen to the heart, we are left to decipher between what is his high-brow intellectualism versus sheer politico bravado.
Barrett Doss and Enrico Nassi also shine in tiny roles, while James Noone's revolving set keeps things visually interesting. Matthew Nielson's intricate sound design carries the arc of the story like an electrical current with its metaphorical soundtrack. It's a well-orchestrated production of an exceptionally eloquent and arresting play, one that tests and retests our perceptions of "The Real Thing."