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In 'The Real Thing,' a Real Clash Between Work and Life

How many lovers and families struggle to remain connected and whole, even as they fall victim to great, passionate, all-consuming love affairs? And of these great affairs, how many of us carry on with that most insidious of mistresses: our career?

In Washington, D.C., as in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” people grapple and wrestle with these truths in the intersection of love, fidelity and politics. D.C. audiences get to check in with director David Muse’s interpretation at Studio Theatre until the play closes on July 7.

Henry, played by Teagle F. Bougere, is a famous, successful playwright who falls in love with Annie (Annie Purcell), the wife of his play’s male lead, Max (Dan Domingues).

Henry’s feelings for Annie are so powerful that they render the great writer impotent when he tries to describe them. His words come out childish and warmed over.

When the play was first performed in the 1980s, it was Stoppard’s first attempt at unpacking the complexities that come with love. Stoppard has long been one of England’s great contemporary, metaphysical, hyper-intellectual playwrights. He is funny, but his plays, particularly in the ’80s, were criticized for lacking heart.

In “The Real Thing,” the playwright attempted to describe the entire love cycle: from the falling to the staying, from the commitment to the betrayal, and from the requited to the unrequited. And he explored how trying to use words to describe the profound can fall short of the experience.

In this latest staging, the play opens with a play within a play. It is a scene from Henry’s “House of Cards” — perfect for a town obsessed with the Netflix series that dissects Capitol machinations but which has nothing to do with Stoppard’s work. In this play within a play, a wife, Charlotte, is back from a business trip and her architect husband is convinced she is cuckolding him.

Complicating matters, Charlotte, played by Caroline Bootle Pendergrast, is Henry’s wife and an actress. The husband in the play is Max, Annie’s devoted husband. For good measure, Annie is also an actress, as well as a political activist trying to get a young Scotsman named Brodie (Tim Getman) released from prison.

Annie’s commitment to free Brodie hounds Henry and Annie’s relationship. This is in part because, to work for Brodie’s freedom, she must reject Henry’s work.

“Maybe Brodie got a raw deal, maybe he didn’t,” Henry says when Annie is asking him to critique the prisoner’s television play. “I don’t know. It doesn’t count. He’s a lout with language.

“I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence. ... I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are,” Henry continues. “They deserve respect. 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 when you’re dead.”

For “The Real Thing” to work, the chemistry between Henry and Annie must be undeniable. As the characters describe it “the insularity of passion ... the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover” is lacking in the interactions between the two leads. When they are around each other, Henry and Annie must crackle.

They seem more like fond roommates or best mates, rather than the kind of lovers who destroy families. Purcell conducts more heat with the other men than she does with Bougere, who is playing the one she claims to be completely devoted to.

Annie seems to be a passive witness to her own life, with a watery delivery and shrugged-out, apologetic choices. But the character as Stoppard has written her is driven. For this character to work, Annie must be the most powerful person on the stage.

Bougere’s Henry is lovely, warm and charming. When he flashes a smile, one understands the power of his charm and wit. One understands his devotion to literature and the purity of the word. But his human connection is the strongest when he is acting opposite Pendergrast’s Charlotte.

This show does not rise to great theater. In a play about love and fidelity, the major flaw of this show is not enough people on stage seem to be particularly smitten with anyone else.

Pendergrast stands out among the cast. There is a solidity and emotional truth she projects that is lacking in the scenes where she is absent.

While the rest of the actors are playing acting, Pendergrast is doing the real thing.

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