Roundabout rounded up name players for this revival of “The Real Thing,” Tom Stoppard’s meditation on the vagaries of love and the elusive nature of reality. Ewan McGregor makes an impressive Broadway debut as a British playwright whose new play reflects both his own rocky relationship with his cool and distant wife (Cynthia Nixon) as well as his affair with the vivacious wife (a radiant Maggie Gyllenhaal) of the star of his play. Stoppard is a witty brainiac who likes to tease and torment an audience, but helmer Sam Gold’s mannered production is so steeped in artifice, it’s almost antagonistic to the text.
Jeremy Irons, playing opposite Glenn Close in Mike Nichols’ memorable 1984 Broadway production of Stoppard’s dissection of modern marriage, needed no lessons in the mysteries of British humor. The arched eyebrow, the disdainful smirk, the articulate thrust, the venomous retort — he just got it.
The largely American cast performing here under the helming of Sam Gold (“The Realistic Joneses”) seems overwhelmed, not to say cowed, by the scribe’s blithely brittle humor. Missing the subtlety of the satire, they seem to think this cutting comedy of manners is better played as earnest drama — except for those jarring musical interludes when everyone drops out of character and sits around singing those 1950s and 60s pop songs of which Stoppard was notoriously fond.
Helmer Sam Gold’s austere production, which is sort of expressionistic and sort of not, is alienating at first sight. There’s something very cold and unforgiving about David Zinn’s set — a wall of dead-white squares that periodically opens up to rooms furnished in Danish modern furniture that was already out of style by the 1980s. Only the walls of books tell us that living, thinking people inhabit these rooms.
The initial chill extends to the first scene, a showdown between an aggrieved husband named Max and his adulterous wife, Charlotte, desultorily played by Josh Hamilton and a terribly miscast Nixon. It’s a relief to learn that Max and Charlotte are actors in a play written by Charlotte’s husband, Henry (humanized by McGregor). But since the stage play seems to mirror their own relationship, things look grim for this marriage.
Stoppard is uncharacteristically candid in this play, mulling over the inadequacy of any playwright to reproduce on stage the existential “reality” of life. To replicate, as it were, “the real thing.” Henry does the heavy thinking, but Charlotte gets the best lines: “You don’t really think that if Henry caught me out with a lover, he’d sit around being witty,” she says. Among other things, “his sentence structure would go to pot.”
Once Max arrives on the scene with his real-life wife, Annie (Gyllenhaal, making a perfectly lovely Broadway debut), it’s obvious that Henry’s literary style isn’t the only thing going to pot. He and Annie become lovers and without much ado, ditch their spouses and set up housekeeping together. Despite Kaye Voyce’s uncharacteristically ghastly costumes, which make everyone look dowdy, the personable thesps convince us that these intellectually ill-matched lovers are enthralled with one another. It should be noted, though, that Henry’s passion for the language of literature (“I don’t think that writers are sacred, but words are”) is more ardent than anything he has to say about his unsophisticated beloved.
By now, the lines of love and duplicity, loyalty and betrayal appear to be clearly drawn. But can they be trusted? They are certainly strained when the life-affirming and ever-exuberant Annie is carried away by a dubious political cause and convinces Henry to rewrite the hopeless script of an imprisoned anti-war protestor.
It seems that true love has not inspired this brilliant writer but made him a little stupid. Not surprisingly, he gets a wicked case of writer’s block. Serves him right.