Both Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal are making their Broadway debuts in ‘The Real Thing,” Tom Stoppard’s trickster meditation on what is reality versus artifice in art, politics and above all in love, but Cynthia Nixon is the most interesting performer in this disappointing Broadway production, although not for what she does on the stage.
Nixon appeared in the original Broadway production of “The Real Thing” when she was 18 years old, as Debbie, a small enough role that she simultaneously appeared in David Rabe’s “Hurly Burly,” walking back and forth between the theaters each night – thus giving birth to the Nixon Rule; Actors Equity forbids any performer to appear in two Broadway shows at the same time.
We now see Nixon playing Charlotte, the mother of the character she played in “The Real Thing” 30 years ago. In the first scene of the play, Charlotte walks in on her husband Max (Josh Hamilton), the door slamming behind her, which knocks down the house of cards he is building. This turns out to be significant in several ways we learn later. Right now, Max has larger concerns – Charlotte says she was in Switzerland, but he found her passport in her recipe drawer. He suspects adultery. She reacts in outrage, comparing his snooping to being burglarized, and she storms off.
“Is it anyone I know?” Max calls after her.
“You aren’t anyone I know,” Charlotte replies.
In the second scene, we find out that that scene wasn’t real. Charlotte and Max are not married to one another. Charlotte and Max are actors, and they were performing a scene in a play, entitled “House of Cards,” written by Charlotte’s actual husband, Henry (portrayed by Ewan McGregor). Max is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal.) Soon, though, life imitates art, as we eventually discover that Max’s actual wife Annie is in fact having an affair….with Henry.
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The play winds up centering on the relationship between Henry and Annie, and what Henry learns about real love. Henry, a pedantic wordsmith, starts off believing that real love can’t be captured on stage or in words. “Loving and being loved is unliterary. It’s happiness expressed in banality and lust.” But his reaction to Annie’s “real life” infidelities – in scenes that cleverly mirror the “staged” interaction of the first scene – evolve, until the playwright (both Henry and Stoppard) finds the words…and the feelings.
This, anyway, is what we were left with in previous productions. It doesn’t quite work for me in this one.
Ewan McGregor, an undeniably charismatic movie star still probably best known as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies, is an intelligent actor with extensive experience on stage, but he doesn’t seem precisely right as Henry. Henry is a cerebral man a bit battered by life and trapped by his own intellect. Yes, he is charming in his own way, but one pictures the sort of uptight hyper-articulate charm played so well by Roger Rees or the arch snob charisma done by Jeremy Irons; both actors have played Henry to great acclaim.
McGregor comes off as no less sexy and laid back as Gyllenhaal, which makes them fitting subjects for a great photo shoot, but a mismatch as a middle-aged man hurt by his second wife in precisely the way he has hurt others before her.
Director Sam Gold adds about a dozen pop songs from the 1960s, some of them sung by the actors at the beginning of each act. There is some justification for this in the script, but not in any way that makes sense. Henry prefers these pop tunes over classical music, but this is a running joke in the play, because his preference embarrasses him, and we see him forcing himself to learn to love Bach; he only responds to it when he notices that Bach’s “Air on a G String” is identical to pop group Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Set designer David Zinn has created a single set – an apartment with white walls full of books. The interplay between reality and fiction is confusing enough without all the scenes taking place in the same locale.
Still, no production can completely ruin all that is delightful, dense and dazzling in Stoppard’s work, threaded with allusions to Strindberg, Wilde, Coward, John Ford (the author of the 1633 incest drama, Tis A Pity She’s a Whore), all topped by Stoppard’s own insights and observations tumbling forth from his characters as rants – let’s call them arias – on the difference between plays and real life (“thinking time”), on political posturing, on what makes good writing. “The Real Thing” makes good writing.
The Real Thing