Absent a new Tom Stoppard play on Broadway — “The Invention of Love,” anyone? — a revival of Stoppard’s 1984 hit “The Real Thing” is certainly welcome. Welcome, too, is the legit advent of Miramax Films, which joins the small cadre of Broadway’s filmland angels with this revival imported from London’s ever-hot Donmar Warehouse. But most welcome of all are Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle, two English actors who are making terrific Broadway debuts in David Leveaux’s intentionally muted, intensely thoughtful production of Stoppard’s brilliant dissection of various truths and illusions of love and romance.
Audiences who recall the starry, Tony-winning original Broadway production, with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, may be surprised — and even taken aback — at the cool, ruminative tone of Leveaux’s production.
It’s built like a delicately balanced house of cards around the ineffably charismatic but extraordinarily subtle performance of Dillane as Henry, the playwright (and author of a play called “House of Cards,” of course) who departs one marriage to enter a blissful new one, only to have the romantic ideals that have defined all his emotional commitments called into question when his new marriage threatens to unravel.
The chilly-chic sets of Vicki Mortimer recall her fine work on last season’s “Closer,” a play about love and infidelity that makes a savage contemporary companion piece to Stoppard’s.
Her designs are dominated by moving panels of smoked glass that may be said to typify the production’s aesthetic. The surface sheen of Stoppard’s scintillating language is treated with casual respect here — it’s not buffed to a high polish and served gleamingly over the footlights, as it is in most productions of the play.
Here the emphasis is on the feelings that glow dimly beneath the surface of the words, the darting glances that add a question mark to a witticism, the pauses that speak more eloquently than even the eloquent Stoppard, particularly when they’re being sculpted by an actor equipped with the amazing instincts of Dillane.
Set changes are effected onstage with a decided lack of emphasis on speed, allowing the last moments of a scene to linger briefly in the audience’s mind. Leveaux’s deliberate pacing takes a while to get used to, and indeed the pulse of the first act is dangerously low, but when the rewards of this slow-fuse staging arrive in the second act, they are ample.
Stoppard’s Henry is a serial romantic, the kind of highbrow guy who thinks pop songs can capture the essence of love in a way his own writing can’t, the “happiness expressed in banality and lust.”
He leaves his first wife Charlotte (Sarah Woodward) with nary a regret when he falls in love with Annie (Ehle), also an actress. At the end of the first act, when Annie not-so-playfully teases him about his lack of jealousy, Henry responds by admitting it’s because he feels “superior” in his knowledge of loving and being loved. He relishes “the insularity of passion … the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover … There’s you and there’s them.”
Henry takes love, and its insularity, for granted — a telling detail of Mortimer’s subtle costume designs is Henry’s inveterately casual dress; he’s always in his socks, even when others aren’t. It’s a symbol of his cozy sureness of himself and of his love, the kind of presumption that can be mistaken — and is — for indifference and, yes, superiority.
Henry lives in a world where words and emotions have cut-and-dried meanings — the play’s great cricket-bat speech is a beautiful, funny paean to the power of linguistic precision — but he fails to see that he’s alone there. Everyone else inhabits a less rarefied, more dimly lit place, the real world, where things cannot be defined quite as neatly as Henry might like, where love and commitment are loose and mutable things.
Henry’s gradual descent into this sadder sphere is the core of the play, and it’s a moving progress to observe, thanks to Dillane’s deeply humane performance. He duly conveys all the linguistic delights of Stoppard’s writing, the moving ruminations on the pains and pleasures of love and of writing, but his performance has a strong, simple core of emotional truth, a softly shining tenderness, that makes his disillusioning a really heart-wrenching thing to watch.
Dillane is wonderful with words, but just as wonderful without them: He is often most arresting when reacting, and the most wounding image in the play is simply the vision of Henry sitting in darkness, a hand on the phone on his lap, aching and defeated by the searing suspicion of Annie’s infidelity.
Ehle’s performance as Annie is also intelligent, intensely felt and finely shaded. This character can seem to be on the wrong side of the moral battlefield at times, particularly since Henry alone is possessed of Stoppard’s soaring rhetorical gifts.
Ehle, who at times bears an intriguing resemblance to Meryl Streep (and also, less surprisingly, recalls her mother Rosemary Harris), turns her into a woman of real integrity, who strays despite her better instincts and is in some ways far more emotionally sophisticated than her husband.
When she says, “If I had an affair, it would be out of need,” it rings entirely and painfully true.
The supporting roles are also nicely served by this all-English cast, imported whole from the West End run. Nigel Lindsay is tough and funny as a tougher-than-usual Max, Annie’s abandoned first husband, and Woodward is amusingly peevish in the first act and later touchingly, maternally affectionate as Henry’s abandoned Charlotte.
Charlotte Parry is appealingly wry as Henry’s and Charlotte’s daughter, the wise-beyond-her-years Debbie. The second-act scene in which Charlotte and Debbie casually and tenderly dissect the flaws in Henry’s romanticism, while he defends it beautifully — to the death, as it happens — is marvelously played. Dillane signifies it subtly and touchingly as the turning point in Henry’s sentimental re-education.
The clever correspondences of the play’s structure — the motifs and arrangements that recur with new and different meanings — are not as strongly etched as they have been before. That’s intentional: Leveaux’s production makes a point of downplaying the play’s cleverness and emphasizing its emotional veracity, and the payoff is rewarding.
Stoppard’s intellectual sleight-of-hand in “The Real Thing” is certainly dazzling, but his sensitive evocation of the painful, hazy complexities of love is more lastingly impressive, and it shines powerfully in this production.