‘The Real Thing’ and ‘Social Creatures’ examine the human condition

Two very different plays in performance right now both have a lot to say about life, love and the human condition. The considerable delights of “Social Creatures” at Trinity Rep and “The Real Thing” at The Gamm seemingly could not be more disparate, but both are marked by pithy wit and exceptional insight. Both shows are wickedly funny in addition to being witty and wise and each are wonderful examples of the particular strengths of two venerable Theatre Companies.
Social Creatures
“Social Creatures” is set in a post-apocalyptic Providence of the future where remnants of humanity have holed up inside Trinity Rep to seek shelter from a landscape swarming with zombies. Now, if you’re like me you might be wondering “what’s with all the zombies these days?” On TV, in movies, etc., the ambulatory deceased seem to be fairly ubiquitous in contemporary culture. But monster movie mayhem is largely kept at bay here and serves chiefly as a catalyst for the author’s concerns. What playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is interested in is humanity in extremis; how a given crisis exposes the best and the worst of us, of who we really are.
The play starts off with confusion in the dark as a couple of survivors attempt to get an ancient generator working. The eventual illumination reveals a congregation of mismatched people thrown together for mutual support and survival who “just want to save what’s left of mankind.” This ragtag collective is an apt metaphor for the structure of the play itself as “Social Creatures” is a crazy cut-up quilt of wildly varying ideas, impressions and insights, all stitched together by Drury’s sharp and pointed writing. And if the play at times seems as hectic and inchoate as the civilization these survivors are attempting to revive, well, that’s part of the point too and is a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Playwright Drury is adept at wittily presenting the paranoia of a given society, whether direly threatened or not. Meditating on what humans are capable of one of the characters muses that she was “not bad, just scared”, the implication here being that fear is at the root of all evil. As this little society sticks it out in their sanctuary each records little soliloquies for the benefit of posterity and the audience. “We remember what we miss” begins one of these speeches and what is scarily ironic and even a little touching here is the utter paucity and poverty of their most cherished and inner most thoughts. Even in extreme situations, it seems here, what we hold onto closest is our petty and simple concerns.
Curt Columbus has directed this futuristic tale with a sense of focused ferocity but, rather like Eugene Lee’s startling set design of disparate odds and ends, the real achievement here can be found the various components that make up this whole. The cast is uniformly excellent with especially strong performances being delivered by Alexander Platt, Darien Battle and D’Arcy Dersham.
The Real Thing
“Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?” That’s the question asked by Shakespeare, and the play “The Real Thing” may well be Tom Stoppard’s reply. The eminently intellectual Czech-born English playwright tries and succeeds to have it both ways in his musing and amusing exploration of the meaning of life, love and one’s love life. And the show proves to be a sheer delight for both the heart and the head.
Written in 1982, the play is seemingly a response to criticisms leveled at some of his plays up to that point, that there was little emotional depth beneath the sparkling and highly embossed intellectual surface of his works. And in his own distinctive dry, sly way, Stoppard has a lot of fun with that notion in this play. In “The Real Thing” he has constructed a rigorous examination of the nature of love, a journey that here includes very funny sidelong glances at how art imitates life, life imitates art, the vanity inherent in political causes and the pure primacy of properly used words.
Double meanings abound here and there are obvious parallels between Stoppard and his hero Henry (the excellent Tony Estrella) as well as between the fictional world that Henry, himself a writer, has created and his own private life. Using the structure of the English romantic drawing-room play as a jumping-off point the play explores the mysterious machinations of the heart. Love equals knowledge here, it is the sharing of both that is important and the many insights offered up along the way are themselves well worth the price of admission.
That glibness cannot hold it’s own without honest emotion is well understood by Fred Sullivan Jr., who has directed “The Real Thing” with a real depth of feeling. The bon mots are sharp and brightly delivered, to be sure, but it is a thorough emotional honesty and constant romantic tension that mark the performances in this play.
Tony Estrella is a marvel as Henry, he is endearing to behold as he attempts to balance himself upon his vast emotional reserve, a quaint English goofiness that marks Mr. Stoppard’s inner shame for adoring something as superficial as pop music. But on those rare moments when Henry allows the mask to slip you witness the great play of emotions roiling within the man. This is a wonderfully measured and subtle performance. He is well matched by Jeanine Kane as Annie, she’s forthright and sprightly and the romantic chemistry between these two onstage can’t be beat. Tom Gleadow and Marianna Bassham offer excellent support, Betsy Rinaldi is absolutely engaging as Henry’s daughter Debbie. Marc Dante Mancini makes for a sweet and shy Billy while Steve Kidd is a ferocious and funny Brodie.
“Love is loving somebody at their worst”, Henry tells us in a play that makes great use of artifice to tell us love’s simple, unvarnished truth. He also reminds us that while writers aren’t sacred “words are. Nudge them and you can change the world a little.” A perfect summation for the worlds created by the words in both of these two fine plays.
“Social Creatures” at Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, now through April 21. “The Real Thing” at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, now through April 14. See calendar for details.