Tom Stoppard offers a story about 'love'

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Tom Stoppard's latest play, ''The Real Thing,'' which opened at the Strand Theater here last month and may go on to Broadway, is very nearly what it says it is.

At least it's as close to a dramatic thing as London theatergoers seem likely to encounter in the West End this somewhat disappointing season.

Stoppard does not fail those familiar with his reputation for wit, precision, and intellectual challenge. He offers ideas about writers, politics, and passion that mingle fast and furious with the chic little jokes. But what this playwright - who in past works has wrestled with the moral postures of art, government, and journalism - now enters is an entirely new domain: the landscape of love.

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It is a laudable effort, bespeaking the author's unwillingness to rest on his laurels or to remain in what has been his terrain. But it is an attempt that secures only partly successful results.

Stoppard has never been known for powerful characterizations. People in his plays have usually taken a back seat to the ideas they articulate. It's a simple trade-off that has worked because of the compelling intelligence of the ideas.

Not so in ''The Real Thing.'' The author here is attempting to write a play about love. And while the intellectual conceits and comic touches are out in full force, true emotion proves disappointingly elusive. As the lead character in the play states, ''I don't know how to write about love.''

The premise of the play is that Henry, a playwright not so unlike Stoppard, has fallen in love with Annie, the wife of his leading man, Max. There is lots of witty talk in the first act between Henry and Annie about whether they should or should not leave their respective spouses for each other.

Yet when Annie states quite simply, ''It's only a couple of marriages and a child,'' and the second act thrusts us into ''two years later'' with nary a tear being shed in between, we feel cheated. Just when Stoppard should dole out some meaty emotion to his characters, he retreats into what he does best - cool, intellectual debate.

About the only passion we see is the occasional odd shouting match between Henry and Annie (''I love you,'' ''No, I love you'') and some forcefully put questions that focus on whether one can successfully write about love while experiencing it.

The answer is sadly apparent. It is infinitely easier to talk about love than to experience it - either on stage or in real life.

Seldom do the characters ever touch each other, other than with verbal barbs. The one exception is Henry's daughter, Debbie, who is a commune-living, free-spirit foil to the other well-modulated adults on stage.

Peter Wood's direction and Carl Toms's design reinforce this sterile posture. The set, made up of two living rooms, is up to date, white, and spare.

But Stoppard is too clever to simply let us ruminate on one theme. What he tosses into his examination of emotion is a sort of running commentary on the nature of writing itself. Not only is Stoppard asking whether one can write successfully about love, but whether our notions of ''good writing'' have any validity at all. He does this by juxtaposing all the writerly cleverness of Henry against the technically faulty, but ''truthful,'' writing of Brodie, a jailed soldier.

The ultimate question seems to be whether our views of art, politics, and emotion have any reality beyond our own perceptions. This is familiar Stoppard territory, and here he succeeds.

Roger Rees as Henry and Felicity Kendall as Annie are both more than competent in their roles. But Miss Kendall seems the one most comfortable with expressing emotion. She communicates a fresh-faced passion that is endearing and provocative. Mr. Rees, perhaps best known for his lead role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' seems to retain much of his inner, coiled-spring motivations.

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