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Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat


Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)

The Real Thing

Written by Tom Stoppard 
Directed by Michael Halberstam  
at Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: $45-$65  |  more info

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Stoppard’s sardonic masterpiece the perfect opener for Writer’s 20th season


Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)

Writers’ Theatre presents


The Real Thing

Review by Lawrence Bommer

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing maps the topography of love with uncanny precision. It also explores-to-exploits the contrast between life and art. That subversion shows up in the first scene. We’re tricked into thinking it depicts a real-life breakup, but it’s really a scene from “House of Cards,” a drama by Henry–who we meet in the second scene, which takes place in the real “real life.” But life actually imitates art: Eventually Henry will break up with his actress wife Charlotte and reinvent love with Annie, an activist actress who will test their bonds but never break them.

Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)
It’s a tangled web, with temptation for Annie provided by Billy, an eager young actor with whom she plays “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” in Glasgow and makes out on the long trip north, and a pretend-protester named Brodie, who gains false fame for torching a veteran’s memorial wreath, supposedly to protest the deployment of American missiles on British soil.

Further complicating matters is Stoppard’s ambivalent attitude toward his own surrogate: At times fatuous, then vulnerable, Henry is a playwright who easily entertains the doubts of others about whether he can feel love enough to write it. He believes in the power of the specificity of words, so much that for him bad writing is as much a moral failing as a literary one—and he detests Brodie for daring to think he has anything new to say when he scribbles scenes so predictably. But Henry’s plays are just as likely to dwell on the difference between digital and mechanical watches as the inner workings of the human heart, because he distrusts abstractions as cover-ups or euphemisms and emotions that too easily mutate into their opposites. House of cards indeed, or, sexually speaking, musical chairs.

As it turns out, Henry is quite capable of jealousy and the imagined losses on which it feeds. He radiates enough rage to retroactively prove there’s love lurking within his threatened relationship with Annie.

All the mercurial, mutable flashes of feelings of these overly articulate characters are delivered with classic Stoppard fluidity (and, some would say, glibness). Almost operatic in their splendid flights of fancy, the characters speeches require absolute confidence at both connecting them intimately to the other characters and proclaiming them to the real audience– us. When Henry plays effortless variations on the differences between knowing and being known in sex versus love, it’s a tour de force that could easily turn a drawing room into a lecture hall.

But, as masterful as the material, Michael Halberstam’s perfectly modulated staging honors the complexities, contradictions, and consistency of Stoppard’s brittle-to-breakable creatures.

Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)
Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers Theatre 013

Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)
Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)

Sean Fortunato is totally on top of (when he’s not falling under) Henry’s fearless credo of unflinching accuracy in art and honesty in life, a concentration that can be mistaken for coldness even by Henry himself. In contrast, Carrie Coon’s exuberant Annie embraces life’s messiness, knowing her heart will preserve her priorities even in the midst of serial adultery. She’s also invaluable at challenging the too-composed Henry to write about something, not realizing that he has to live it first–and, thanks to her, he will. (Their love/hate relationship strangely resembles the game-playing, ever-evolving love between George and Martha in Albee’s relationship masterpiece.)

Sardonic but also dynamic, Natasha Lowe is equally quicksilver in pouncing on Charlotte’s devastating observations about Henry and his self-protective quirks. As his clear-eyed daughter Debbie, Rae Gray cuts her father down to size as no other female dares.

Playing Henry’s quondam rivals, John Sanders, Jordan Lane Shappell and Ryan Hallahan provide foils to the playwright’s peccadilloes and bait for Annie’s wandering loyalty. But she always finds her way home to Henry. Though the play sporadically seems to turn on him for excess purity in his pursuit of “the real thing,” by the end we understand exactly why.


Rating: ★★★★


Writers’ Theatre’s The Real Thing continues through November 20th at their performance space, 235 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map), with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm. Tickets are $45-$65, and can be purchased by phone (847-242-6000) or online at More information at




Carrie Coon, Sean Fortunato, Rae Gray, Ryan Hallahan, Natasha Lowe, John Sanders, Jordan Lane Shappell

behind the scenes

Michael Halberstam (director); Collette Pollard (set); Heather Gilbert (lighting); David Hyman (costumes); Mikhail Fiksel (sound); Nick Heggestad (props).


Review: The Real Thing (Writers’ Theatre)

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