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New Phoenix stages an exhilarating, well-acted ‘The Real Thing’

In my wallet there is a faded piece of paper on which is scribbled some lines from a play, “The Real Thing,” by British playwright Tom Stoppard. It’s an observation of his, perhaps, maybe advice, to me a modern-day axiom that I’ve referred to many times over the years when writer’s block strikes without warning at the midnight hour. It reads:

“Words…They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing

that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges

across incomprehension and chaos. If you get the right ones in the right

order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children

will speak for you after you’re dead.”

Stoppard almost always gets the right words in the right order, a case in point the revival of one of his masterpieces, the “The Real Thing,” at New Phoenix Theatre, a sometime play-within-a-play that is often called “poignant,” a teasing, crazy-quilt story of semblance and reality, a witty and bright foray into adulterous behavior, the suffering that follows and a great deal of looking for love in all the wrong places. Kelli Bocock-Natale, someone who also gets things right more often than not, directs for the New Phoenix, leading the award-winning quartet of Eric Rawski, Wendy Hall, Kristin Bentley and Steve Copps, and the young acting talents of P. J. Tighe, Jamie Nablo and Jamie O’Neill, through a talk-filled but stimulating Stoppard night. No surprise. The New Phoenix, celebrating its 20th season, has been ensemble-driven from day one.

The story is complex and takes some sorting out: Henry, a playwright, and Charlotte, an actress, have been married for some time. Both have had dalliances. Max, an actor currently in a Henry play – infidelity the theme – seeks more than rehearsals with his co-star Charlotte. Oh, and Max’s off-stage wife, actress Annie, is enamored with Henry, who reciprocates. Everything’s friendly, they sip cocktails together, break bread and all search for genuine love – the “real thing,” in other words. Henry can write hilarious situation comedies about hanky-panky but he has a tough time living with it at home. “But,” says Henry, “I love love. I love having a lover and being one.”

There’s more. Henry and Charlotte’s 17-year-old daughter is about to run off with a musician and Annie has some interest in a Scottish anti-war activist named Brodie – his memoirs are drivel and she wants Henry to ghost-write – plus a young television actor is panting after her. Stoppard’s brilliant but scatter-shot mind twists and turns at full speed.

There is resolve … Charlotte alone out there in the world. Give her time, though.

The quotable Henry – the amazing, pitch-perfect, nearly impeccable Rawski – is key to all of this, his discourses and pronouncements long, rambling and wise on a gamut of topics; George Bernard Shaw would have loved this guy. One such theory: “There’s something scary about stupidity made coherent.” If a motto is needed for America’s current political silly season, this is it.

Hall (Charlotte), Bentley (Annie) and Copps (Max) excel in roles to remember and director Bocock-Natale’s sage theatrical instincts come to the fore.

Language lovers should flock to “The Real Thing.” It still exhilarates.


4 stars

What: “The Real Thing”

When: Through Oct. 10

Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park

Tickets: $30 general, $20 students, seniors

Info: 853-1334,

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