As The Real Thing opens, the audience watches Max building a pyramidical house of cards. As he is about to add a pair of cards, a slamming door announces the return of his wife, Charlotte, and the cards collapse. With scalpel-like precision, Max begins to question Charlotte about her trip to Switzerland, finally revealing that he has discovered her passport in the recipe drawer and is now aware that many of her “trips,” like this one, never really occurred. He congratulates her on the fine touches such as the Rembrandt placemats procured for her mother when she was supposed to have been in Amsterdam, for it is “those little touches that lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style.” They exchange acid remarks about the number of her lovers, with Max asking finally if her current lover is anyone they know; Charlotte responds that he is no longer anyone she knows.
Scene 2 reveals that what the audience has just seen was not “the real thing,” but only a scene from a play Henry has written titled House of Cards. Charlotte, who is married in real life to Henry, not Max, is complaining about the part Henry has written for her in that play. Henry is too idealistic, too much a man of words to really know women or to portray believable characters in his works; he sacrifices reality for wit. At that moment Annie (married to Max) enters, fresh from her work on the Justice for Brodie campaign. Private Brodie, after meeting Annie on a train going to an antimissile demonstration, became so genuinely committed that he assaulted two policemen and started a protest fire, using the wreath of the Unknown Soldier as kindling. For this “stupid piece of bravado and a punch up,” Brodie was sentenced to six years, and Annie has taken up his cause.
Brodie, however, is not the only man on Annie’s mind: She and Henry are having a real-life affair. Indeed, she urges Henry to make love to her on the carpet while Max and Charlotte are in the kitchen chopping turnips. Henry demurs, rejecting as a foolish, unnecessary risk what Annie regards as a concrete expression of genuine passion. They agree on a safer meeting later in Annie’s car, only to find in scene 3 that such safety is illusory. In an altercation which mirrors the play-within-the-play in scene 1, Max confronts Annie with Henry’s handkerchief, discovered in her car. She confesses that she loves Henry.
Scene 4 is reminiscent of scene 2, except that it is now Henry and Annie, married only fifteen days, who are talking, with Annie already protesting, much as Charlotte had, Henry’s preoccupation with work and his ignoring of her. “You don’t care enough to care,” she tells him, teasing him with the story...
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