Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Lori Montgomery
The Real Thing
Betty Mitchell Theatre
September 30 to October 24
Dr. Betty Mitchell Theatre (JA)
It's not hard to understand why most playwrights at one time or another produce a play about the theatre. Remaining true to the tenet "write what you know," it's a logical place to start. British playwright Tom Stoppard is no exception to the rule, having turned to that well-spring of inspiration at least a couple of times in his career. His The Real Inspector Hound revolved around a pair of theatre critics, and The Real Thing focuses on a playwright and his actress wife. Daniel Libman, himself a prolific writer, will direct The Real Thing for Theatre Junction, and is no stranger to the device.
"My most successful play is a play called Cecil and Cleopatra... and it's about an acting teacher, so I guess we all have that in us," he says. "If you work in the theatre, it's hard not to write about where you work. Novelists probably have a much broader base of interests than playwrights - at some time or other, we're going to write a play about the theatre."
That said, however, Libman argues that The Real Thing is more than just a snapshot of the theatre world.
"It's a play about people who work in theatre, but I wouldn't say it's about theatre - or at least, that's not its biggest distinguishing point, anyway," he says. "It's about people trying to sort through when is love the real thing? When is it surface, when is it less than, when is it old and stale, when is it not the real thing?"
The central character is Henry, a man who has written a play that stars his wife, Annie. Commitments and infidelities on stage give way to the ones in real life, leaving the audience wondering which is which. Some observers at the time the play was first performed in the early '80s drew comparisons between Henry's life and Stoppard's, and called the play autobiographical. Stoppard downplayed the parallels, as does Libman.
"It's not so much the autobiographical thing which is intriguing," he contends, "it's just extremely personal and therefore it's extremely true, the stuff he's writing about, because there's no place to hide - he even attacks his own artifice within the play. And he doesn't come out necessarily always glowing, either."
As in other Stoppard plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Arcadia (both produced recently at the Stoppard-friendly Theatre Junction), abstract issues like the distinction between high art and pop culture and the nature of love and demands of relationships are teased out in the course of a many-layered, concrete story.
"The good thing is that he does not descend into dialectic and polemic," Libman points out. "In this play at least, the things that people say are directly tied to the things that they need, in the most simple of acting terms, and it's all tied to the dramatic action, so he's not getting up on a soapbox."
The director is clearly an admirer of the play, which earned Tony Awards for actors Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons and Christine Baranski, as well as for Stoppard himself during its 1984 Broadway run.
"The thing that's gratifying about this play is that it's truthful, so you don't have to feel like you have to cover up inadequacies in the writing at any point," he explains. "You don't have to 'get by' certain sections. You have to be aware of the fact that every single thing in here rings true - and that's pretty wonderful in a play, and sometimes a little rare in a play."
Libman has a playwright's mistrust of prominent direction, and while he takes seriously his role in helping the performers to realize the play's potential, he sees no reason to make flashy changes to the work that appears on the page.
"I have less need to put a stamp on a play that wasn't otherwise there, because I have a creative outlet of my own," he says simply. "A director, just like an actor, is an interpretive artist. A playwright is a creative artist, and I think a lot of directors sometimes feel frustrated by that, are aware of that distinction and want to, through interpretation, make sure that they've put a clear enough stamp of their own on a play. My gut feeling is always that, certainly with a good play, you sometimes do best by presenting the truth of the play and not inflicting another layer of stuff for the audience to get through."
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