THE HEART OF THE MATTER Kane and Estrella.
How many words do the Inuit have for snow? Well, we probably have at least that many for what to call not-quite-love: infatuation, a crush, puppy love, lust? Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, which is getting an absorbing staging by the Gamm (through April 14), boldly directed by Fred Sullivan, Jr., doesn't clear up all the confusion, but it certainly illustrates the extent of the muddle.
The number of couples involved here depends on whether you count the infidelities. There is even a shaky marital situation toward the beginning that we learn was really only the rehearsal of a scene in a play, all demonstrating to us the fragile nature of perceptions. Though everyone's British accent remains firmly in place, the romantic gavottes that characters traipse through are displays of generic human nature rather than a particular culture.
The central pair under examination is Henry (Tony Estrella) and Annie (Jeanine Kane). He is a talented playwright who, to make money for alimony payments, tosses off teleplays. She is an actress. Henry pretends to like classical music, though he can't tell a Bach sonata from a dripping faucet. The music he does love, though it's too lowbrow for him to admit it, is pop, from Procol Harum to Neil Sedaka. Annie's relationships, pre- and post-Henry, are too convoluted to keep track of without a spreadsheet, and her attitude toward love couldn't contrast more with Henry's bulldog loyalty.
At the outset and after intermission, when two years have passed, Annie is involved with helping a British soldier, Brodie (Steve Kidd), who has gotten six years in the brig for an antiwar action. The young man has written a lengthy play stuffed with every obvious observation of social injustice he can think of, and Annie wants Henry to whip it into respectable shape. Stoppard gets to fulminate through Henry about how good intentions do not make up for bad writing.
Near the end of the play, we meet Brodie for the first time and find out that just about everything we have learned about him and his relationship with Annie is inaccurate and seems quite different when turned a little toward the light. As a character briefly stepping onto the stage, Brodie is a bit flat-footed, more significant in our imaginations than as a physical presence, but Stoppard carts him out as a kind of human prop so Annie, in an impetuous action, can finally demonstrate her love for Henry.
The other London couple is Max (Tom Gleadow) and Charlotte (Marianna Bassham). Though he comes into only two scenes, Max goes through many changes, as a kind of avatar of mutability. He gets to impress us with fast-paced, brilliantly clever banter, but soon we learn that this was merely as a character in one of Henry's plays; in real life he comes across as dull and a little stupid. Charlotte was married to Henry before Annie, and their breakup was inevitable, considering their contrasting styles of relationship: he believes that commitment is all and should weather all storms and offenses; she is adamant that a marriage needs constant maintenance, tinkering, and attention.