Ewan McGregor makes an assured Broadway debut as Tom Stoppard‘s semi-autobiographical stand-in, an erudite playwright struggling to tame the slippery concept of love in his writing as well as his personal life in The Real Thing. Maggie Gyllenhaal also brings poise and sophistication to the actress who breaks up his marriage and becomes his second wife. But pretty much everything else in Sam Gold‘s hollow revival is a little off. That goes for a terribly miscast Cynthia Nixon, a too-literal design concept that’s hard on the eyes, and sing-along scene changes that are as cloying as they are superfluous, serving mainly to yank us out of the play.
First seen in London in 1982, The Real Thing was substantially revised for Broadway two years later in what became its definitive version. That production won Tony Awards for best play, director Mike Nichols, leads Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, and featured actress Christine Baranski. A then 17-year-old Nixon made Broadway history by appearing as the teenage Debbie in the character’s lone second-act scene, sandwiched between her stage time in Nichols’ production of David Rabe‘s Hurlyburly, running simultaneously two blocks away. The Stoppard work returned to Broadway in 2000, winning Tonys for best play revival and leads Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle.
What made this play something of a departure for Stoppard is that its intellectual pyrotechnics are matched by its heart. There’s a note of introspective self-exposure in the serio-comedy, in which a high-minded playwright acknowledges the challenges of conveying something as abstract as love in his work — as intangible a theme as politics, justice or religion. There’s also the affecting admission that even the brainiest among us can be flummoxed by passion and all its attendant uncertainties. At least that was the takeaway from the exemplary production staged by Nichols, a director renowned for his deep-probe work with actors. (I didn’t see the 2000 revival.)
Gold is an exceptional collaborator on new work, notably the plays of Annie Baker, Will Eno‘s The Realistic Jones, and the Broadway-bound Jeanine Tesori–Lisa Kron musical, Fun Home. But the director’s approach has been a less organic fit for revivals such as Picnic and Look Back in Anger, and this production does nothing to correct that impression.
Even before a line of dialogue is spoken, David Zinn‘s set suggests a style being imposed rather than a text being served by nuanced understanding. The central character played by McGregor, Henry, is a man both in thrall to and unfailingly in command of the power of words, who admits to the guilty pleasure of 1950s and ’60s pop. So Zinn has created a sparsely furnished environment for Henry, dominated by books and vinyl, but with a stark gulf of white space in the middle. Taking a cue from one of Henry’s lines in which he celebrates “the insularity of passion,” the wall opens up at two points late in the action when outside forces intrude on that bubble of private bliss. It’s not this production’s only distancing device.
The songs are also an issue, starting with the cast onstage before the first scene crooning Smokey Robinson‘s “I’ll Be in Trouble” while the actress playing Debbie (Madeline Weinstein) strums a guitar. Such breezy musical interludes occur throughout, dipping into hits by the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and Herman’s Hermits, among others, and sapping any tension that might otherwise build scene to scene. Stoppard’s point may be that Henry is convinced love is best left to the sentimental pop tunesmiths, and not to his cerebral dramas. But this is an inelegant illustration of it.
The awkwardness of the intro carries over as Charlotte (Nixon) and Max (Josh Hamilton) wade through a stiff opening encounter in which a husband confronts his wife with suspicions of adultery. That scene is soon revealed to be from House of Cards, a play within the play, written by Henry and starring his wife Charlotte. But Nixon, now playing the mother of her original character Debbie, comes across as a starchy matron with a grating air of superiority. Not only does her studied British accent make it seem like she should be addressing Parliament, but her Charlotte reads as the kind of joyless schoolmarm who would send many husbands packing. And costumer Kaye Voyce does her no favors either, with a wardrobe that’s hideous even by the cruel standards of the 1980s setting.
The arrival of McGregor in the next scene is a relief simply because there’s finally an actor who looks relaxed on the stage. Complications ensue when it’s revealed that Henry is the one having the affair. He’s been conducting a secret fling with Annie (Gylenhaal), an actress who happens to be married to Max.
While the production never fully recovers from its clumsy start, it’s most convincing when McGregor and Gyllenhaal are alone onstage, as is increasingly the case after Henry and Annie have remarried and he attempts, without success, to write a play for her. The chemistry between the two actors is warm and spontaneous, and McGregor brings easy charm to a man whose brilliant mind and quick wit are his armor of choice in both attack and defense. The actor is at his best in a marvelous Act II speech likening the design efficiency of a cricket bat to the importance of subtlety in writing. The key trajectory here is Henry’s emotional maturity, and in that aspect, the production fulfills its requirement.
Of course, Annie wounds Henry despite his armor when she gives him a taste of the hurt and humiliation that he inflicted on both Max and his character in House of Cards. Truth and artifice repeatedly blur and overlap as Stoppard cross-references the handling of love by other dramatists, from August Strindberg to the 17th century Jacobean playwright John Ford. In fact, Annie’s extramarital excursion comes as a result of her appearing with an ardent co-star (Ronan Raftery) in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Friction also arises over her support of a young militant protestor (Alex Breaux), whose attempt at playwriting allows Stoppard to take jabs at the differences between writing for art or for a cause.
Aside from the two leads, the remaining cast leaves little impression, including Hamilton in the most thankless of the four principal roles.
To Gold’s credit, he keeps all the discursive debate humming and shifts the many pieces of Stoppard’s cryptic jigsaw into place by the end. But while the writing remains ravishing, the depth of feeling this play should engender is largely absent. A black and white promotional photo for the production shows Gyllenhaal, McGregor, Nixon and Hamilton frozen in mid-dance attitudes, like figures from a mod album cover. That injection of youth into a play about the hard-won wisdom of middle-aged experience hints at the fundamental disconnect here.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, Alex Breaux, Ronan Raftery, Madeline Weinstein
Director: Sam Gold
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company