by Clark Groome

A thrilling play by local playwright Michael Hollinger and a disappointing production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” opened last week. Here’s my take on them.

Incorruptible

When I saw the world premiere production of Michael Hollinger’s “Incorruptible” 18 years ago, I was taken by its wit, which bordered on farce, and its intelligence.

What I missed then — or perhaps it wasn’t present in that first production — was the depth of its exploration on what it takes to be a Christian, dedicated to helping others.

The Arden Theatre Company, where the play first appeared in 1996, is producing it again (through June 22). Not only does this production capture all of former Mt. Airy and current Elkins Park resident Hollinger’s rollicking and intelligent humor about a group of down-on-their- luck monks in 13th century Priseaux, France, but it also deals with their honest confusion about how best to serve God.

The story’s simple: The monks are out of money because the remains of their resident saint, St. Foy, have stopped working miracles.

What’s a monk to do? The answer is to use the resources at hand to earn enough so they can do the good deeds they’ve vowed to do.

They need to get the Pope to visit, bringing with him the pilgrims (and their purses) that follow him everywhere, but His Holiness has opted to stop at a nearby church where there is a working saint.

The wicked humor and the methods with which the Priseaux brothers realize their goal are the focus of the play. “Incorruptible” is so funny and so smart, it had me and the rest of the opening night audience laughing as profoundly as I have heard in a theater in a very long time.

But there is more to the play than just being funny. The depths of the monks’ desire to do good, to spread the Gospel, is palatable, even when they are doing things that seem to go against that mission.

Director Matthew Decker has assembled a tip-top cast: Paul L. Nolan as Charles, the abbot; Ian Merrill Peakes (Brother Martin, Charles’ second in command); Josh Carpenter (Brother Felix, a novice); Sam Sherburne (Brother Olf, also a novice); Mary Martello (a peasant woman from the village); Michael Doherty (Jack, at first a one-eyed minstrel — yes, he’s a one-eyed jack — later called Brother Norbert); Alex Keiper (Marie, Jack/Norbert’s almost wife); and Marcia Saunders (Charles’ sister and the abbess of Bernay, the town with the working saint and the Pope’s primary attention).

The designers are James Kronzer (the spectacular set), Lauren Perigard (the spot-on costumes), Eric Southern (the revealing lighting), and Jorge Cousineau (the subtle sound).

Not wanting to spoil the play’s surprises and twists and turns I won’t reveal how the Priseaux brothers ultimately manage to get the Pope’s attention. I will reveal that this early play by local playwright Michael Hollinger seems not only funnier but also significantly wiser than it did when I first saw all it those years ago. It’s remarkable theater and really good news that the Arden has brought it back to close its current season.

For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.com.

The Real Thing

For the 10th time in its history, The Wilma Theater is producing a Tom Stoppard play; this time it’s “The Real Thing.” The company’s previous Stoppard productions were, if memory serves, excellent.

The current offering, which David Kennedy directs, doesn’t measure up. The production, which runs through June 22, fails to capture the brilliance of Stoppard’s language nor does it deal effectively with the various relationships that exist among its characters.

A Stoppardesque playwright named Henry (Kevin Collins) falls in love with Annie (Suzy Jane Hunt), an actress who has appeared in one of his plays. The relationships in Henry’s play and in Stoppard’s are similar. The result is that it’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s part of Henry’s play. Does art imitate life or vice versa? It can be stunning when performed with a razor-sharp approach. At the Wilma, however, it’s all pretty hard to follow. The emotions and interactions come across as hollow and phony. The acting is fine, but the direction is not. None of what should be scintillating or revelatory or funny ends up that way. It’s all pretty flat and lacks the life that is the hallmark of Stoppard’s work.

The physical production — designed by Marsha Ginsberg (set), Emily Rebholz (costumes), Thom Weaver (lighting) and Nick Kourtides (sound) — is constantly in motion with the set changing multiple times in full view. That’s distracting and off-putting.

It’s hard not to admire Stoppard’s writing, his intelligence, wit and imagination even in a disappointing production, which, alas, is what the Wilma’s “The Real Thing” is.

For tickets call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org.