Charlotte (Carrie Paff) and Max (Seann Gallagher) play the roles of a husband and wife at the end of their marriage in Aurora Theatre Company’s The Real Thing. Photo: David Allen

Aurora’s outstanding production of Tom Stoppard’s award-winning 1982 play, The Real Thing, has already been extended because of early ticket demands. And it’s no wonder. Although the celebrated British playwright is known for his intellectually fascinating dramas (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Arcadia, Coast of Utopia, and his recent problematic The Hard Problem at ACT), The Real Thing combines intelligence, emotion and wit in a multifaceted play about love. An admirable, yet endearing, performance by Elijah Alexander as the playwright Henry successfully compliments Stoppard’s masterful use of language.

Henry, a stand-in for Stoppard himself, is a successful playwright who seems to find it difficult to express emotion in his life as well as in his theatrical productions. This deficiency is emphasized as The Real Thing begins with a play-within-a play, a scene from Henry’s current comedy, House of Cards, in which a man’s discovery of his wife’s infidelity hardly affects his composure and eloquence. This artificial event foreshadows later scenes in The Real Thing with very different, and much more human, reactions to infidelity.

The two actors in the play-within-a play are Henry’s wife, Charlotte (Carrie Paff) and his friend Max (Seann Gallagher). Max is married to Annie (Liz Sklar), who is also an actor. Annie is involved in trying to free Brodie (Tommy Gorrebeeck), a political prisoner of sorts. Max learns that Henry and Annie are having an affair in an incident involving a handkerchief straight out of Othello.

The second act occurs after Annie and Henry have been married for two years. When Annie spends six weeks in Glasgow in a production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore with her young, sexy co-star Billy (also Tommy Gorrebeeck), a jealous Henry ransacks their house searching for signs of Annie’s infidelity, in stark contrast to the play-within-a play of Act One. Annie admits that, as a result of Henry’s remoteness, she is emotionally, although not physically, entangled with Billy. Yet the audience has watched the two rehearsing ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and it certainly seems as if they’re having a physical affair. Or is this yet another illusion?

The theme of fidelity and love abounds as Stoppard dissects illusion and reality, art and life, emotion and loss, and the search for what is real — The Real Thing. By the end of the play, Henry’s persona is transformed from his lessons in love from the three women in his life, Charlotte, Annie and his teenaged daughter, Debbie (Emily Rodosevich).

Billy (Tommy Gorrebeeck) and Annie (Liz Sklar) rehearse ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in Aurora Theatre’s The Real Thing. Photo: David Allen

Timothy Near’s direction (“Master Harold” … and the boys) neatly maintains the pacing and panache of the play. The cast, all experienced actors, led by Elijah Alexander, with some fine performances, including Liz Sklar’s Annie, Carrie Paff’s Charlotte and Emily Rodosevich’s supporting role as Debbie, are up to the complicated task of performing a play by Tom Stoppard. And there are some nice touches to warm the production and keep it lively, such as lots of great old rock-and-roll music heard in between scenes.

And who can’t love a playwright who knows that it was The Crystals, and not The Ronettes, who sang Da Doo Ron Ron?

The Real Thing runs through March 5 at the Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley. Two performances have been added to the original schedule:  Saturday, Feb. 25 and Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m. For information, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...