If someone ever made a list of all the fascinating, complicated Englishmen who are delightful to spar with but unbelievably difficult to have as close relations, the resulting piece of paper would probably stretch from Buckingham Palace to the moon and back again. Henry, the protagonist of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, is a charming but irascible polemicist in the vein of a Christopher Hitchens or a Kingsley Amis, but he’s also very much the voice of Stoppard himself. He loves, he scolds, he plays the fool, and he attempts to define the gap between feeling something and writing about it in a way that’s occasionally brilliant and occasionally tedious.
Watching Studio Theatre’s production of The Real Thing, which debuted in 1982 and had a Tony-sweeping Broadway revival in 2000, it’s clear that something has been lost since the play first featured Henry expounding his theories on love and literature. In the ’80s, the decade machismo never recovered from, the concept of a man discussing his feelings so frankly must have seemed breathtaking. In 2013, when even an NFL star weeps openly, Henry’s postulating feels less relevant than it once did.
In Studio artistic director David Muse’s production, Teagle F. Bougere (last seen at Studio in Invisible Man) plays Henry, with the excellent, magnetic Caroline Bootle Pendergast as his wife, Charlotte. Charlotte is performing with Max (Dan Domingues) in a play written by Henry, in which Max’s character confronts Charlotte’s character about her infidelity. But the real intrigue lies in the extramarital affair between Henry and Max’s wife, the spirited Annie (Annie Purcell), whose idealism places her in sharp contrast with Charlotte’s world-weary cynicism. (All characters deliver strong English and Scottish accents, thanks to dialect coach Gary Logan.)
Part of The Real Thing’s fun is the way it plays tricks on the audience, presenting one scene from a “play,” followed immediately by another scene that’s actually “real” (although it is, of course, also from a play). Presented in the round, the production does little to help the audience distinguish life from art, with the actors manipulating furniture on James Noone’s circular set to create different locations. The show benefits from Matthew Nielson’s sound design, which showcases Henry’s idiosyncratic record collection and his embarrassed love for pop music when he knows someone of his literary stature should be listening to Wagner, or at least Bach.
Integral to the production is Bougere’s layered performance, which makes Henry come off as irrepressibly charming, difficult, infuriating, and somehow vulnerable. The foil to his multifaceted character is Brodie (Tim Getman), a Scottish activist and ex-soldier whose pigheaded egotism and lack of sensibility places him in sharp contrast with Henry’s lengthy pondering, but also makes him something of a wasted plot point. The play is almost three hours, and it’s hard not to see the Brodie subplot as a distraction, even if it enables some of Henry’s best lines on the subject of writing. (Writers may not be sacred, he says, but words are: “Innocent. Neutral. Precise.”)
Also something of a distraction is Debbie (Barrett Ross), Henry’s teenage daughter. Given Henry’s dedication to manipulating words to such magnificent effect, it’s hard not to wish Stoppard hadn’t pruned his play a little more carefully. The production can drag, especially in the overlong second half. But for those in love with language, or those in love with love, this is one Englishman worth wrestling with.
The Real Thing is at Studio Theatre through June 30. Running time is about two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($49 to $64) are available via Studio’s website.