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A CurtainUp Review
The Real Thing
Add-On Comments by Elyse Sommer
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.
Only two kinds of presence in the world. There's you and there's them. I love you so. — Henry. For more quotes from this quote-rich play see Elyse Sommer's
There is no denying that a fine cast can make an acclaimed and also familiar play resonate as if one is seeing it for the first time. If this third time for me around the park with Tom Stoppard's cleverly erudite play does not necessarily offer any surprises, the Roundabout production is grand and generally rewarding.
It will undoubtedly dazzle those as yet unfamiliar with the renowned playwright's ultra sophisticated wordplay.
L-R: Ewan McGregor (Henry),Cynthia Nixon (Charlotte),Josh Hamilton (Max), Maggie Gyllenhaal(Annie) Photo: Joan Marcus
I have a fleeting memory of the original Broadway production directed by Mike Nichols in 1984 that boasted a knockout cast that included Glenn Close and Christine Baranski, as well as the strikingly spare but also stunning Donmar Warehouse production that came to these shores in 2000. Now, I'm again amazed by the ability of this play to astonish me, something that this production did for the most part.
There is something to be said for a plot that is so utterly contrived and conspicuously convoluted that we can appreciate its ability to unravel into the ether of time and forgetfulness. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that it appears over time to be better and better. Certainly the current high-profile cast under the direction of Sam Gold has found plenty of plot in which to spar and also make it their own unique arena for endless rounds of verbal fisticuffs.
Henry, the playwright hero of The Real Thing is a successful writer of romantic comedies. His own personal real life escapades are alluded to in a scene from one of his frothy comedies that serve as a prologue to the play proper. Stoppard, the playwright, uses this "play before the play" and "play during the play" structure to parallel both his protagonist's trap in creating a romantic comedy that his audience might find amusing, with the necessity of real people to embroider life, i.e. The Real Thing, with as much theatricality and complexity as their own credibility can muster.
Under Gold's snappy direction this revival certainly has a lot going for it. Stoppard's theatrical conceits seen in counterpoint to real life's more hard-edged and dangerous struggles with fidelity and truth. The dialogue, both in the hilariously superficial prologue and the body of the play, is Stoppard at his most dazzling. Words, epithets, and metaphors hurtle, cascade and bombard us into distraction and bring to mind such equally worthy-for-revival gems as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia."
I particularly enjoyed the doo-wop music that kept the cast singing, swinging and swaying as they all pitched in to become furniture and prop movers. Notable among the movers and shakers was Madeline Weinstein, who plays the role of the hippie daughter Debbie. This amusingly staged activity by the ensemble gave designer David Zinn's smartly spartan settings their mobility. Although I believe that this has become traditional, it seems to have been enhanced musically, all to better enjoy the many welcome breaks between the stretches of high-toned blather.
In the prologue, a scene from Henry's play, House of Cards a husband (solid work by Josh Hamilton) suspects his wife that is unfaithful when he finds her passport has been left at home when she supposedly was off to Switzerland. The unseen lover, presumably the author, is immediately encountered in Scene 2 married to the cheating actress in his play. This time, Henry, as played with an irrepressibly arrogant charm by Ewan McGregor in his Broadway debut, is having a tryst with the cuckolded actor-husband's wife, Annie (of Scene 1). Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific as Annie.
Neither Henry's wife, Charlotte (a superb Cynthia Nixon) or Annie' husband Max (also played by Hamilton) are as immediately aware of their spouses' affair as they are of Annie's current secondary interest in rescuing a political activist from prison. Amidst niceties and crudities, the affair is eventually exposed and four lives are rearranged.
Henry —a strict constructionist when it comes to marriage, love and use of words— and Annie — a free-spirited liberal whose marital commitments need constant re-enforcing— are now married. They become embroiled in another escapade when Annie recruits Henry to change and polish her anarchist friend Brodie's (a scarily funny Alex Breaux) awful play. While performing it she has a dalliance with Billy, the young good-looking leading man, as convincingly played by British actor Ronan Raftery. The emotional traumas and unsettling of their relationship force them into re-defining their love as "the real thing."
If Stoppard's exploration of fictional stage life, theatricalized real life and love is intentionally dense, it is also indefensibly glib. The cast wend their way with dexterity through the author's brittle and erudite ideas about commitment, conscience and infidelity. I was especially taken with Nixon, a Broadway veteran and an Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner, who brings to the play a super sophisticated chic. She is particularly stunning in the wardrobe designed for her by Kaye Voyce. In complimentary contrast to Nixon, the equally radiant Gyllenhaal is dressed with a sexy stylishness.
A large dollop of glamour, however, goes a long way in dressing up a spectacularly verbose play that begins to wear a little thin long before it's over. But, for those who expect and rely on words and lots of them to ultimately take precedence over wardrobe, this is The Real Thing
Note: In addition to Elyse Sommer's add-on quotes, more about Stoppard in Curtainup's Stoppard Backgrounder
Add-On Comments by Elyse Sommer|
A season allowing me to see two Stoppard plays I've admired can't be all bad. My re-visit to the Roundabout's production of Indian Ink featured the lovely Rosemary Harris. The new revival of The Real Thing has a piquant casting touch in that Cynthia Nixon who played the teen-aged daughter of Henry, Stoppard's stand-in and the main character, now play's Henry's first wife Charlotte (that's the one he ditches for Annie who's married to Max, her scene partner in the play-within-the play.
Even though Stoppard can get a bit self-indulgently talky, this inside look at the world of theater professionals is a real play (that's as opposed to Terrence McNally's gag-riddled, lightweight It's Only a Play . Besides always being thematically sturdy, any encounter with a Tom Stoppard play, whether reading or seeing it, is to be bowled over by its verbal wit. The Real Thing is without a doubt one of this wordsmith's most quotable.
Following are some of my favorites. Not surprisingly, since Henry is himself a writer, the wittiest come from him. And, since online publications like Curtainup don't have a space problem, I'll indulge myself in including that wonderful cricket-bat quote in its entirety.
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.
This [cricket bat] here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we're trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might... travel. Now, what we've got here [Brodie's script) is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch! with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. . .
What a great and memorable riff! But our Henry loves to love as much as write, for this is after all a play about marital relations. Following some memory stickers:
I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn't seem much different from not loving.
It's no trick loving somebody at
their best. Love is loving them at
their worst. Is that romantic?
Well, good. Everything should be
romantic. Love, work, music,
literature, virginity, loss of
That same scene also includes Annie's put-down of her husband as a snob:
You judge everything as though everyone starts off from the same place, aiming at the same prize. English Lit. Shakespeare out in front by a mile, and the rest of the field strung out behind trying to close the gap.
Stoppard leaves it to Charlotte to tell Henry that While for Henry the tile refers to his notion of love involving a commitment, Mr. Stoppard leaves it to Charlotte to put her own more pragmatic spin on that notion:
There are no commitments, only
bargains. And they have to be made
again every day.
When daughter Debbie finally isn't just mentioned but actually on stage, she summarily dismisses her dad's last play as not being as deep as he likes to think:
Well, it wasn't about anything, except did
she have it off or didn't she? What
a crisis. Infidelity among the
Debbie is truly her father's daughter, as illustrated by her lengthy discussion of her father making the subject of fidelity such a crisis and her own sexual initiation in a school boile rroom by her Latin teacher. Again, given the freedom of cyberspace, herewith her whole delectable rant:
It's what comes of making such a
mystery of it. When I was twelve I
was obsessed. Everything was sex.
Latin was sex. The dictionary fell
open at meretrix, a harlot. You
could feel the mystery coming off
the word like musk. Meretrix! This
was none of your mensa-a-table,
this was a flash from the forbidden
planet, and it was everywhere.
History was sex, French was sex,
art was sex, the Bible, poetry,
penfriends, games, music,
everything was sex except biology
which was obviously sex but
obviously not really sex, not the
one which was secret and ecstatic
and wicked and a sacrament and all
the things it was supposed to be
but couldn't be at one and the same
time -- I got that in the boiler
room and it turned out to be
biology after all. That's what free love is.
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard |
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Josh Hamilton (Max), Cynthia Nixon (Charlotte), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Annie), Ronan Raftery (Billy), Madeline Weinstein (Debbie), Alex Breaux (Brodie)
Set Design: David Zinn
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Bray Poor
Production Stage Manager: Charles Means
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street.
Tickets: $67.00 - $137.00
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00PM.
From 10/02/14 Opened 10/30/14 Ends 01/04/15
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