Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: "The Real Thing"

“I love love. I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn't one's lover.” 

There are few greater playwrights in the English language than Tom Stoppard -- Sir Tom Stoppard, that is to you. 

For nearly half a century, he has crafted some of the finest language ever to have crossed the stage. From the balls-out, awesome inventiveness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late 1960s -- a reworking of Hamlet from the perspective of the doomed prince's doomed sidekicks -- to the massive Coast of Utopia trilogy in the mid-aughts -- about, of all things, 19th century Russian intellectuals -- Tom Stoppard finds inspiration in the most unlikely material and brings it to life on stage with words of great beauty and power, the most dazzling language created this side of Shakespeare. Indeed, Stoppard is one of the Bard's true blue successors. 

I've seen some of Stoppard's plays over the years -- Arcadia, The Invention of Love, Jumpers -- and they never cease to amaze me. That was why I was so happy to go to the Roundabout revival of Stoppard's 1980's hit The Real Thing -- the second time it has been revived on Broadway since 1985 and the second time I've seen it stage. This is a very good production with one glaring problem.

The Real Thing is about a playwright named Henry (Ewan McGregor) who has been having an affair with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the wife of his actor friend Max (Josh Hamilton). Henry is married to Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), an actress who is currently appearing in a play written by Henry. It's not giving away much that Henry and Annie run off together. Most of the play is devoted to the complexity of their relationship while Annie tries to negotiate her acting career while at the same time working on the "Free Brodie" (an imprisoned political activist) committee and Henry tries to keep writing while grappling with the challenge of being a divorced dad. Like all Stoppard play's, the plot is a device to encourage a larger discussion on the nature of truth, love, sex, family and how we understand them through the beauty and challenges of ... words. Also, The Real Thing has a big plot twist -- some might even call it a trick -- and it appears at the beginning of the play, not the end. Like all Stoppard plays, not only is the language sublime but so is the plotting.

This production is beautifully staged. The set is very modest and the actors really move around and use it in a way that helps to make the story compelling. There's a lot of music in this production, with the actors even singing along to a diverse number of songs like "Do Run Run" and "Whiter Shade of Pale." And, of course, the acting is great (well ... almost all of it). Cynthia Nixon, as always, is great. As wonderful as she was on Sex and the City, she really is one of the great stage actresses of her generation and is a joy to watch on stage. Josh Hamilton is very good as Max, making the most of the one of the most thankless parts I've ever seen in a play.

The biggest revelation is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Man, she is a GREAT actress. I've seen her in some movies like The Dark Knight and she was good. But on stage, with a great material like Stoppard, she really shines. Her Annie is such a complex, sexy creation that you can't take your eyes off her for a second. She generates so much power from the stage that you leave the theater thinking not just about what a great writer Stoppard is but what a great actress Gyllenhaal is. She inhabits Annie so completely that I'm still thinking about her performance. She's just a joy to watch.

The same, sadly, quite can't be said about Ewan McGregor. He is a very good actor and I loved him in Trainspotting (who didn't?). Also, he was the only decent thing in the Star Wars prequels. But he's a less than compelling Henry. In the play, Henry is supposed to be a great writer and a lousy human being. In fact, he's kind of a prick. That's part of what makes his evolution in the play into a good husband and father so important. But McGregor is just too likeable, too decent, too ... unprickish ... that this evolution doesn't really register with the audience. I will, however, admit a bias: in the revival I saw in 2000, Stephan Dillane (better known today as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones) played Henry and he was incredible (won a Tony for it, in fact). McGregor just doesn't compare. I tried to seperate the two performances in my mind but just couldn't: while McGregor's Henry is passable, it just didn't work for me the same way Dillane's did. 

However, these feelings aside, this Real Thing is a production worth seeing. 

“Words... They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more... I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.” 

P.S. This production is appearing at the American Airlines theater on 42nd street. It's a great theater and it has a secret 5th floor bar that is a great place to go during intermission. When the wife and I went there to get a drink during intermission, there were hardly any people but there were lots of tables and chairs plus a beautiful open-air balcony. It's a real gem and worth checking out if you ever go to a show there.

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