Playwright Tom Stoppard earned a reputation for literary cleverness with works such as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Jumpers,” but it wasn’t until he wrote “The Real Thing” that he revealed he had a heart. Although the play is notably witty and trickily structured, it is starkly simple at its core: a story of people trying to connect and stay connected. South Coast Repertory’s revival succeeds on every level, from Martin Benson’s wizardly direction of a superb cast to a tour de force perf by Bill Brochtrup.
The action of the play concerns the intertwined fates of two couples: actors Max (Martin Kildare) and Annie (Natacha Roi), and actress Charlotte (Pamela J. Gray) and her playwright husband, Henry (Brochtrup). While Max and Charlotte are cast as lovers in one of Henry’s plays, Henry and Annie are actually having an affair, one that alters the lives of all concerned.
In a relationship sparked by infidelity, however, the fear of similar betrayal is ever-present, and Henry will learn how far he is willing to go to preserve “the real thing.”
Brochtrup’s perf works on a couple of levels. His delivery of Stoppard’s fusillade of sparkling wit is extraordinary, acted in such a way that the punchlines hit, but with an offhand air — a display of casual brilliance. Beyond the surface, however, this is a portrayal of an intellectual deliberately thawing himself out when confronted with true love and emotion, and Brochtrup brings a real sense of passion and pain to his stubbornly romantic role.
Roi excels as the more emotional Annie, keeping the character sympathetic even when her actions aren’t. Kildare is icily effective in the beginning scene, where Max is acting out his role as a suspicious husband accusing his wife of an affair. The contrast between that cool accusatory bravado and the raw anguish when Max learns Annie is leaving him for Henry makes for a memorable perf.
Gray brings believability to Charlotte’s early unfocused angry flailing and later relaxed contentment and is effectively mysterious and cutting as the unfaithful woman in the first scene.
Director Benson not only gets wonderful perfs from his cast but also manages to keep all of Stoppard’s plates spinning — sudden changes from fiction to reality, time shifts — making it look effortless. He benefits hugely from Ralph Funicello’s oft-shifting set, a series of slightly different sitting rooms, including one in a train car, that dazzles with its technical virtuosity and keeps the pace of the play percolating.