Josh Hamilton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing.
Photo by Joan Marcus
In the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) returns from a business trip to Switzerland. Her jealous husband Max (Josh Hamilton) asks some questions about the trip until he reveals the reason for his “curiosity” - she forgot her passport. She did not need it, of course, because she spent the weekend with her lover. We learn in the next scene that the couple is in a play and the incident is clearly not “the real thing”.
Let’s say the scene should be a marvelous opener to the play but it is not. Director Sam Gold is not happy with the play as written and he adds some musicians to the scene who disappear quietly as the dialogue begins. I have no idea what the musicians were supposed to add to the play and struck me as directorial interference.
Gold makes a habit of interfering with the play. We will see the musicians again and they will disappear when the action is about to begin again. It was simply annoying.
Back to the play. In the second scene we find Charlotte with her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) who is the playwright of the first scene. Max and his wife Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) come for a visit. Turns out that Annie is an activist on behalf of an oaf called Brodie (Alex Breaux) AND she and Henry are having an affair.
Follow the turns and twists of the plot and try to keep fact and fiction apart. You will run into many versions of the real and the fake as Stoppard keeps you running on the mental treadmill.
Adultery is at the centre of the play but the search for love is the key to it. The two couples try to raise adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style. That is self-delusion of course and the pain of betrayal is real.
The cast is quite superb. Ewan McGregor’s Henry is the intellectual snob, the brilliant and witty defender of elegant and expressive English. In the end he realizes that adultery is a moral vice and not a stylistic virtue. A fine-tuned performance.
Gyllenhaal as Annie is a romantic supporter of leftist causes personified by the imprisoned Brodie but she does not hesitate to use him as a cover so she can see Henry. Annie eventually sees the folly of her support for Brodie and throws him out with a bowl of dip in his face. A very well-done performance by Gyllenhaal.
Cynthia Nixon as Charlotte tells as that she is in fact a serial adulteress in “real life” as she was in the opening scene where she acted in a play as an adulteress.
Breaux is excellent as the dumbbell Brodie and Madeleine Weinstein makes a sassy Debbie, Henry and Charlotte’s daughter.
The sets by David Zinn as with some of Gold’s directorial antics are more mystifying than anything else. The right side of the stage features floor to ceiling bookshelves. The back of the stage has a single bookshelf half way up the ceiling. These people seem to live in a huge warehouse rather than in a pleasant London apartment.
That being said, Stoppard and his dazzling play are not defeated. The cast is too good to allow that to happen and The Real Thing remains as brilliant, funny, witty, cerebral and enjoyable a play as it was when it opened more than thirty years ago.
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and played until January 4, 2015 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036.