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Love Language

Eugene gets a dose of The Real Thing
Dan Pegoda and Sarah Papineau in The Real Thing

Touch me,” the political-activist actress entreats the playwright, just after his wife exits to make a dip for the crudités. These words set the story spinning like a '60s love song on old vinyl — something real and clichéd at once, exploring the delicate, powerful balance of love.

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is a delicious feast of words, the best conversation you’ve ever eavesdropped on. Talky, yes, and if you want helicopters landing on stage this is not your play.  But Stoppard is so masterful that most people don’t fuss about the unfolding plot; they just want to bathe in the language.

Stoppard, whose works include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties, set out to write about love: real, complicated, grown-up love. Layering scenes though a series of conversations, he examines the thoughtless expressions of care, lust, vanity, hope and self-protection that surround love. 

And in case the complication of emotional commitment doesn’t feel real enough, director Fred Gorelick stages the play in the round — or in the square, actually. The audience is granted a seat on the edge of Stoppard’s fictional living room and invited to peer in. Gorelick blocks his actors like a master chess player, providing all the voyeuristic pleasure of a round with none of the annoying sight problems.

Dan Pegoda delivers an enthralling performance as playwright Henry, a wizard of words who can coddle, convince or cut down anyone in his midst. This production absolutely rests on Pegoda’s shoulders, and he carries it as easily as a sack of feathers. The way he breezes through the verbiage is a pleasure to behold, but look deeper: Watch for the way his character listens to others, and listens differently in different situations. Pegoda’s physical movements alone can hold an entire conversation while urbane nonsense pours from his mouth.

This magical performance is well complimented by the remaining cast. Sarah Papineau rocks the fabulous role of Annie, playing not only Henry’s beloved actress (complicated enough) but also the characters in his plays. Storm Kennedy also delivers as Henry’s original wife Charlotte, the one woman capable of out-wording the playwright, although his daughter (Shannon McInally) is working on it. Russell Dyball is a sweetly naive Max, reacting honestly to the storms raging around him.

Some of the tertiary characters lack this same sense of authenticity, and their funny lines and roles as plot movers inspire a cartoonish portrayal. Dale Light and Colin Gray are fine actors, and the consistency in their manner suggests an intentional conspiracy on the part of the director and writer. That choice was hard for me to dig, after so much was done so well.

This carnival of words is set in Britain, and could have been ruined by the poorly managed accents Eugene is asked to tolerate in so many plays. No one here slacks on the speech, however, and the clipped British tongue slips so smoothly you scarcely notice.

A brilliant script, clear direction and some of the finest acting you’ll see in town, this production is The Real Thing.

The Real Thing runs through Feb. 4 at Lord Leebrick Theatre; lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.