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A CurtainUp Review
The Real Thing
By Elyse Sommer
Our London critic, Lizzie Loveridge, tabbed the revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing as her personal favorite of last season. Now that it's arrived on Broadway, with all but one member of the cast she saw (Charlotte Parry, instead of Carolyn Hayes, plays Debbie), it's easy to understand her enthusiasm.
The cast is superb and the dialogue, the clever dramatic architecture, even the cultural references to 60s pop music, have withstood the test of time. In fact, it feels more like a new play than a revival, especially under David Leveaux's expertly nuanced direction, with the end of one scene often still visible as the next begins.
Summed up in a nutshell, the story may sound like a much told tale of modern marriage -- a man leaves one wife only to discover that this second marriage isn't quite the real thing either. But this being a play by Tom Stoppard, nothing is ever that simple. Since the man in the case is a playwright who has intellectually compartmentalized his ideas about words and love, there's a lot that goes on; with the challenges about what's real and what isn't turning out to be as much about writing as about love.
The excerpt from a scene from Henry's own play about infidelity, The House of Cards, seagues so casually to events in his real life that if you don't pay attention you miss the transition. Stoppard's use of that excerpt from his hero's play to replay the same basic situation in different settings, reminded of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which he uses Shakespeare's Hamlet. It also brings to mind another recent import, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, with its reenactment of three versions of quite a different event. In The Real Thing, these replays are not as clearly variations of one scene as in Copenhagen and involve set shifts that include sliding and flying props, in one instance a railroad car double seat.
Stephen Dillane is a much more rumpled Henry than Jeremy Irons who played him in the New York production. His absent-minded professor looks and manner are reminiscent of another Henry, the late Henry Fonda, but the intellectual superiority that is challenged when his own casual adultery catches him in the suddenly uncontrollable grip of real passion is all there. He is clearly the play's linchpin. Jennifer Ehle is a wonderfully sexy Annie, especially in the scene when, still married to Max (Nigel Lindsay) she playfully entices Henry with kisses and declares "I'm in the mood to push it" we know that she and Henry who loves "the insularity of passion" are not destined to live happily ever after.
Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Woodward, as the two abandoned spouses are at their best in two "cuddly" parting scenes; he in a touching farewell embrace with Annie and she when she sends her prematurely mature daughter Debbie off to pursue her own real thing. Charlotte Parry makes the most of this small but vital role, as do Oscar Pearce as young actor and Joshua Henderson as Brodie whose cause, and terrible agitprop play engage Annie's sympathies.
The play remains such a stimulating mix of laughter edged with bitterness and this production is so strong that it seems curmudgeonly to bring up any quibbles. Yet, there are a few.
Except for the pièce de résistance scene in which Henry, a cricket bat in hand, gives a devastatingly funny speech about the power of a writer's words, the second act is not as fully satisfying as the first. I also found that long staircase at the rear of Vicki Mortimer's otherwise stylishly contemporary loft set with its versatile and aptly opaque panels took the ambiance to literally distracting heights. Perhaps this is an instance of problems inherent in transferring a play from a small, intimate space like the Donmar or the Albery to a large Broadway House.
Most troubling are the acoustical problems of the lofty set which make some lines occasionally slide and fly off like the props so that you tend to miss some of the never-to-be-missed Stoppardisms, despite the actors' flawless delivery. This problem of not being able to hear everything clearly has been reported by viewers who saw the play in the fifth row of the orchestra as well as the mezzanine. It might thus be a good idea to arrive at the theater in time to pick up one of the devices generally used only by the hearing impaired.
The quibbles notwithstanding, I agree with Lizzie Loverige's conclusion that in theatrical terms THIS IS THE REAL THING. To read her more detailed description of the plot development go here.
For our backgrounder on Tom Stoppard with quotations from his work go here .