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The Real Fling 

A meditation on marital catastrophe with brutal comic momentum

Wednesday, Nov 10 2004
René Augesen walks on as a London blonde in jeans and a trendy green coat, boots and a scarf, looking dangerously excited. "I'm in the mood to push it," she says to her lover Henry, after his wife and her husband have disappeared into the kitchen. "Let's go, on the carpet." Henry resists. "Oh, come on," she says. "It's only a couple of marriages and a child."

Tom Stoppard's meditation on marital catastrophe has the brutal comic momentum of the best British writing on the subject -- think of Harold Pinter's Betrayal or Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head -- and Augesen, as the blithe and fickle Annie, has been cast by director Carey Perloff in a role we can all agree is her defining type: the beautiful disaster. Annie's an impetuous young actress who rips Henry away from his smoother, more elegantly savage wife, Charlotte (also an actress), divorces her actor husband Max, and marries Henry only to cheat on him in turn. She whirls through the play like a tropical storm, maintaining an easy independence and an ate-the-canary smile.

The role might remind some people of a character Augesen played in Night and Day, another Stoppard revival at ACT two years ago. As the transplanted Londoner Ruth Carson she was just as blithe, just as loose, but older and more jaded. More importantly, she was sleeping with a journalist portrayed by Marco Barricelli, who plays Henry in The Real Thing, and it seems that the undeniable chemistry between them is enough to carry a show.

Henry's a faux Stoppard: a cerebral and sometimes pompous playwright who prefers antique pop (like Procol Harem) to Bach and tries to navigate the disaster of Annie with a halting, funny bewilderment. He agonizes over a script about love -- isn't the subject too banal for words? -- but lectures his precocious teenage daughter in high terms about romantic love as "knowledge of self. Carnal knowledge, not of sex, but through sex -- the real him, the real her."

The real thing, though, is elusive. After their affair and remarriage, Annie persuades Henry to improve a (very bad) script by a Scottish "political prisoner," Brodie, to gain attention for his criminal case and spring him from jail. Henry holds his nose and tinkers with the play while Annie contributes her name and talent to a production of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore in Scotland, where she meets a handsome young actor, and the second act is a long, agonized piece of writing about Henry's confusion. Did he do the right thing? Has he found true love? Or is truth just a matter of (trickable, unreliable) perception?

Stoppard handles his themes gracefully, and the dialogue crackles with quotable lines. "It's no good loving people at their best," Henry says, defending the notion of commitment against the testimony of his own life. "The trick is loving them at their worst." Not just Augesen and Barricelli but also Diana LaMar, as Charlotte, and Stephen Caffrey, as the hapless Max, keep the pace brisk and rude and explosive. The play does lose momentum in the second act, and the way Charlotte and Max both seem to drop off the planet after Henry and Annie marry does feel unbalanced. But the script hasn't lost its power since 1982, when Stoppard wrote it, and Perloff makes sure it moves.

Otherwise, the production has rough spots, in particular the smallish mock-up of the Geary Theater's own proscenium arching over every scene, to emphasize that this is all just theater, or theater-about-theater, sometimes theater-within-theater. The Real Thing may be Stoppard's most autobiographical play, but he teases the audience with devices (like scenes written by Henry, or by August Strindberg) to remind us that we aren't watching real life. Got that; thanks. We don't need Perloff's over-literal help in reading the play. Even that phony ACT proscenium has been around for a while -- I seem to remember it from a Perloff production of Waiting for Godot, last year.

But the realest thing in the show is also the most important -- Augesen's performance as a charming bitch who can drink blood and fail to connect the carnage behind her with anything she's done wrong. As she complains to Henry about her ex-husband: "His misery just seems -- in bad taste." She's the flower of a certain kind of modern sophistication: changeable, spurious, and impossible not to love.


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