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.
Emanuel Azenberg, the Shubert Organization, Icarus Prods., Byron Goldman, Ivan Bloch, Roger Berlind and Michael Codron presentation of a comedy in two acts by Tom Stoppard. Staged by Mike Nichols. Settings, Tony Walton; costumes, Anthea Sylbert; lighting, Tharon Musser; sound, Otts Munderloh; production supervisor, Martin Herzer; general manager, Jose Vega; stage managers, Alan Hall , Jane Cooper; publicity, Bill Evans, Sandra Manley. Opened Jan. 6, ’84 at the Plymouth Theater, N.Y. $ 35 top.
Max Kenneth Welsh
Charlotte Christine Baranski
Henry Jeremy Irons
Annie Glenn Close
Billy Peter Gallagher
Debbie Cynthia Nixon
Brodie Vyto Ruginis