By: David Sheward
Sometimes a brilliant playwright and a brilliant director just aren’t the right combination. With the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of The Real Thing, the literary pyrotechnics of dramatist Tom Stoppard and the naturalistic flair of helmer Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation) don’t quiet go together. Stoppard’s 1982 hit examines the fine line between on and offstage love when Henry, a cerebral Stoppard-like author, finds his personal life paralleling his theatrical creations.
The original Broadway production in 1984 (I didn’t see the premiere London version) by Mike Nichols was very clear in its delineation between "reality" and plays within plays. (There was a subsequent 2000 London-to-Broadway revival which struck a pleasing balance between the poles of truth and illusion.) But under Gold’s hand, that distinction is made blurry by the low-key performances, the single unit set by David Zinn, and the company singing pop tunes of the Sixties in between scenes. This may have been Gold’s intention-to show the messiness of love and how art and reality spill into each other. But it lessens the impact of Stoppard’s ironic theme of the sharp divide between the Henry’s idealized world of witty repartee and the untidy nature of everyday life.
Despite the somewhat off-kilter staging, Stoppard’s dazzling wit and compassion shine through. He wrote the work as a rebuke to critics categorizing him as a playwright with a mind and no heart because of his focus on the intellectual in such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and Travesties. In The Real Thing, Henry embarks on an adulterous affair with Annie, an actress, while ironically, his wife Charlotte is appearing in his play about infidelity opposite Max, Annie’s husband. In the second act, the tables are turned. Henry and Annie are now married. Now Annie cheats on Henry and he is forced to deal with the same shattering betrayal about which he blithely joked. There are also brilliant observations on writing, theater, politics, and music.
Ewan McGregor captures Henry’s rapier-like intelligence which he uses as a weapon when life gets too painful. The most stunning moment of the original production featured Jeremy Irons as a solitary Henry bereft of witticisms, breaking down and sobbing "Please… don’t" as he attempts to cope with Annie’s affair. Unfortunately, McGregor fails to elicit the same depth of despair and the moment passes without much effect.
Maggie Gyllenhaal makes for an attractive, witty Annie but she misses the warmth of the Broadway original Glenn Close so when this charming creature steps out on two different husbands, she seems like a narcissist rather than a woman following her heart. Cynthia Nixon was in that same production as Debbie, the sexually precocious teenage daughter of Henry and Charlotte. Here she plays Charlotte and endows her with a wry cynicism, perhaps a trifle too arch though. Josh Hamilton convincingly conveys Max’s earnestness and sorrow, particularly in the brief scene when he loses Annie. Perhaps if there had been more such honest emotion, this would have been a "realer" Real Thing.
The Real Thing
Oct. 30-Jan. 4, 2015. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue.-Fri., 7 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun., 2 p.m. Running time: two hours and 10 mins. including intermission. $67-$137. (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus