Review: 'Real Thing' Smiles on Winthrop

The Real Thing

Winthrop House JCR, November 13-16

Directed by Andreea N. Stefanescu ’04

Produced by Matt G. Baggetta

Whenever a Tom Stoppard play is produced, expectations are high. Stoppard is easily the world’s greatest living playwright, but his plays are full of obscure allusions, endless crescendos of jokes and sophisticated wit—and none of these are easy things for a production to pull off. So it was heartening to see Harvard students rise to the challenge of staging Stoppard this weekend, as the Winthrop House Drama Society staged his masterpiece The Real Thing in the Winthrop JCR.

In between jokes about Jacobean playwrights and the Japanese economy, The Real Thing poses searching questions about love, literature, music and commitment: is the dazzlingly artificial better than the ugly and painful real thing—and just what is the real thing, anyway? Stoppard examines these questions by telling the story of Henry (Matthew J. Kozlov ’04), an intellectual playwright trying to hide the fact that he discusses existentialism’s superficiality on the one hand but listens to The Crystals and The Ronettes on the other, and Annie (Mysha K. Mason ’04), an actress who is campaigning to free Brodie (Stephen J. Quinlan ’04), a soldier jailed at an anti-missile protest for starting a fire on the Cenotaph using the wreath of the unknown solider as kindling. Early in the play, Henry and Annie leave their respective spouses, Max (Alexander L. Pasternack ’05) and Charlotte (Stephanie Jaggers), to live with each other. However, once together, they have to deal with betrayal and jealousy—not to mention bad writing, after Brodie gives the couple a made-for-TV script of his life story.

As Henry, Kozlov held the stage by giving wide-eyed, comically condescending looks of delight whenever anybody said something funny or argued with him. This appealing mannerism established him as a man who was both arrogant and romantic, and served as a fascinating contrast to the scenes in which he abandoned his cheer to sob on the sofa. He also provided one of the play’s highlights in his reading of Brodie’s script; as he read, he supplied every element from steam-train noises to falsetto voices.

The rest of the cast provided solid but unexceptional performances. Pasternack played Max as nebbishy and pathetic, and the audience laughed at his dramatic meltdown which was sparked when a single disgusted look from Annie made him realize her infidelity to him. Mason and Jaggers did their best with the parts they were given, but they didn’t really give a strong sense of their characters’ personalities. This could have been Stoppard’s fault; his female characters function more as foils to the men than as lively figures in their own right. Eda Pepi ’06, as Henry and Charlotte’s daughter Debbie, was a memorable but absurdly over-the-top sexpot. And Sam G. Rosen ’06 deserved recognition for his bit part as Billy, Annie’s lover, if only to laud his extraordinary comic rendition of a speech from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Opening night had a few kinks, with a missed sound cue or two and actors in painful heels stumbling over the cruelly uneven and cramped stage. But overall, the production went smoothly. The soundtrack, which highlighted themes of love and questionable taste, was a well-chosen selection of ’60s bubblegum pop. The play’s setting was changed from London to America, and although the alterations were transparent—cricket was turned into baseball, and so on—the changes spared us from having to hear the bevy of uneven and indistinguishable English accents that so frequently plague American productions of British plays. The characters’ repartee sparkled—even thrived—despite its down-to-earth delivery; the cast made Stoppard’s dialogue seem natural instead of stilted and Wildean. The set speeches were a bit uneven: the more comic ones proceeded well, but some of Stoppard’s lengthy monologues on the nature of love began to feel a bit preachy halfway through.

Director Stefanescu did a good job of putting this production together; the performance had no real weaknesses and several strong performers. To anyone who was looking for a night of thought-provoking, intellectual and funny theater last weekend, the Winthrop JCR truly had the real thing.

—Crimson Arts Critic Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.