Pretty cheeky of Theatre in the Park to market its production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing with a Valentine's Day hook: It's about infidelity more than love. The play seems to be about more than both of those, too—something larger about convictions and artifice, and the power of theater and language—and it is full of Stoppard's customary literary wit and meta-theatrical devices.
It's also full of Stoppard, and not just in its showy verbosity. Its main character, Henry, happens to be a playwright. A self-declared snob—but one who prefers the high fidelity of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to its Bach antecedent—Henry is full of mots that are often quite bons. He's quick with the gleaming aphorism and the witty comeback and is, apparently, a genuinely good playwright. As The Real Thing opens, Henry's swimming in the success of his new play, House of Cards. We see a scene from it before we realize it isn't the real thing.
And for good reason: The leading lady is Henry's wife, but he quickly leaves her for another actress, who is married to Henry's leading man. This reshuffling of the deck sets up another house of cards, which will collapse onto Henry's heart. It seems to be Stoppard giving himself a good thrashing for his vanity and his pomposity, although he has Henry indulge them anyway. Moral heft is provided by a subplot about a soldier who commits an act of vandalism against his own military out of upstanding political protest, and the support he receives from Henry's new wife, much to Henry's dismay.
The first act moves along breezily enough. Stoppard's script takes a somber, more straightforwardly naturalistic turn after intermission. (I prefer him doing The Fake Thing, fanciful plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties.) That's where Theatre in the Park's production starts to plod badly, due in part to uneven and sometimes unfelt acting, and to a cumbersome set design: big rolling platforms on visible casters, bearing homely living room interiors that truncate TIP's ample space and result in a lot of backstage clatter during scenes. All of the set pieces and the back wall of the theater are exposed during changeovers, possibly a nod to the play's exposing-the-playwright project—an intriguing idea, but poorly elucidated by such clumsy means.
The acting and design problems could be overcome by stronger direction. I couldn't tell what Jesse Gephart, who won a 2010 best direction nod from the Indy for The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for Raleigh Ensemble Players, had in mind here. His production lacks heat and intensity, and it's punishingly static, with actors nailed down to loveseats, even while having it out, and permitted to give puzzling line readings. Perhaps the production just hasn't come together yet. Right now The Real Thing seems insubstantial and halting, its essence and its success beyond the reach of its participants—kind of like a lot of marriages, come to think of it.