Strong Performances Lift Bad Habit’s ‘The Real Thing’ (4 Stars)

‘The Real Thing’ – Written by Tom Stoppard; Directed by A. Nora Long; Lighting Design by Emily McCourt; Scenic Design by Shelley Barish; Costume Design by Bridgette Hayes. Produced by Bad Habit Productions at Deane Hall in Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston through November 23rd.

Infidelity is a lot more thrilling when you’re doing the cheating rather than being the unwilling victim of a partner’s affair. Sure, it’s wrong – especially when the person you’re cheating with is your friend’s wife – but at least there’s that sexual or romantic payoff that makes hurting others almost worth it, particularly if empathy is not your strong suit. If you’re the one being cheated on, however, it’s obviously a far different story. The ones committing the infidelity may be suffering pangs of guilt, but you’re the one left crumpled on the floor like an abandoned child.

But if you’re a writer of plays, as is our protagonist Henry (Bob Mussett), there’s nothing like writing from experience, of which he apparently had none regarding real love and loss when he was writing the play within the play we see as “The Real Thing” opens. The character being played by his friend Max (R. Nelson Lacey) sits drunkenly in his living room waiting to confront his wife about her affair that he has apparently just caught on to. The accusations are witty and cutting and Max’s character is able to get his shots in as he effectively throws his wife out for her indiscretions with a sloshed bravado. But as we see later in the play, it’s a lot easier to handle such matters when you’re writing the dialogue and dictating the outcomes.

In Henry’s real life, his wife Charlotte is having the affair(s), but since he’s having one as well, he doesn’t suffer when he finds out – at least not the way his friend Max does when it’s revealed that Henry is having an affair with his wife Annie. If this sounds like the stuff of soap operas (or Shakespeare for that matter) it’s not. The dialogue is clever and biting, as you would expect from a play about a playwright and his intimate circle, although it’s only rarely laugh out loud funny.

The laughs come more from recognizing our own foibles in the characters, such as a running bit where Henry prepares to appear on a radio program where he will reveal the record albums he’d like to have on hand if he were stuck on a desert island. Henry loves pop music, but fears he won’t be seen as an intellectual if he speaks the truth, so he searches out classical pieces to substitute for his real taste. It also sets up some of the funniest lines in the play, including Henry’s gem, “If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at twenty-two, the history of music would have been very different. As would the history of aviation, of course.”

There are a lot of strengths in this show, outside of Stoppard’s brilliant writing. The cast is uniformly talented and the performances are solid. As Charlotte, Gillian Mackay-Smith gives a steely account of a woman who treats both her marriage and her affairs like business transactions, and Lacey is effective as the cuckolded Max. As Annie, Courtland Jones’ talent emerges as her character evolves throughout the play into the stronger of the two in the relationship. Mussert hit his stride in the second half of the piece, as Henry starts to fully understand what happens when love is ‘The Real Thing’ and you’re not the one writing the script.

My only problem with the production is that it seemed a little under-rehearsed and not quite ready, and with emotionally charged material like this I felt a little short-changed. However, given the quality of Bad Habit Productions shows (such as the brilliant “Translations” from last summer) it’s something that I expect will rectify itself as the run continues. If you’re a fan of brilliant dialogue and complicated love entanglements, this show has a lot to offer. For more info, go to: