- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

The music in "The Real Thing" ranges from "Mandy" by Barry Manilow to the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." If you are mining pop schmaltz, why not Walter Jackson's "Feelings"? After all, Tom Stoppard's 1984 play, revived on Broadway in 2000, is a breakthrough of sorts for the playwright, since it is hailed as his first "feelings" play.
Mr. Stoppard's works are notorious for their giddy wit and robust plays on words. Not that cleverness is absent from "The Real Thing," (far from it) but in this play the emphasis is below the neck rather than loftily cerebral. It is a play about mature love, "the real thing," in all of its messiness and vigilant reinvention. Nothing and no one is taken for granted in Mr. Stoppard's complex world of lovers and liaisons.
Directed with intelligence and taste by Cheryl Farone, Olney's staging of "The Real Thing" is a perfectly decorous production — smart and funny. But you wish for some of the disarray that Mr. Stoppard explores in the work. All the elements are in place — a wonderful play, a sensitive and gifted cast, a nifty revolving stage by Hallie Zieselman.
What is missing is chemistry. In a play about love, where people are proclaiming they can't live without him or her, there is curious little fire down below. No sparks fly between the main couple, Henry (Richard Pilcher), a playwright known for witty language, and Annie (Kate Hampton), an actress who is also committed to social causes.
It is downright discomfiting to have people talk so much about passion and express so little of it in their body language, their gazes, the special way they speak to a beloved. Especially when you think that the stakes are quite high. In the beginning, Henry and Annie are married to other people — Henry to the glib, brittle actress Charlotte (Valerie Leonard), Annie to Max (James Matthew Ryan), an actor who seems a nice, decent chap.
They split up two marriages and caused a great deal of pain. You would expect a bit of craziness or oomph, but it is so darn dry and respectable. Miss Leonard and Miss Hampton come off as vibrantly alive, complicated and entrancing women. The men, especially the garrulous Henry, are dull in comparison.
Oddly, the play flares to life when not depicting "the real thing." Annie goes to Glasgow to do a play and has a rip-roaring affair with a fellow actor (Tyson Lien), who is younger, playful, and frankly gorgeous. His goofy seduction of Annie is one of the play's few torchy moments.
As with many a Stoppard play, there are some glorious speeches about sexual politics, semantics, the value of precision in language, and the nature of love. Yet, since the actors catch fire so infrequently, it might as well have been a radio play.

**-1/2
WHAT: "The Real Thing"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 14, through Sept. 30
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
TICKETS: $15-$34
PHONE: 301/924-3400



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