One of the finest speeches in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (and there are several) concerns the absolute value of good construction, using a cricket bat as an example. Henry (Ewan McGregor), an emotionally moderate but aesthetically conservative playwright, explains to his second wife Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that they’re specially built to give maximum propulsion to the struck ball. “What we’re trying to do,” he sums up, “is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel.” True to form, The Real Thing (1982) is exceedingly well made, a keen and touching study of fidelity, fiction and marital love amongst London theater folk. Its craftsmanship is so solid, in fact, it resists director Sam Gold’s well-meaning attempt to gild it.
Over past seasons, I’ve been happy to see the Roundabout bringing Gold in to rethink classics such as Look Back in Anger and Picnic. His approach to staging is clearly inflected by European regietheater and downtown deconstruction. Gold knows that foreshortened space or foregrounded design can work dramaturgical wonders, blow the dust off old properties. With Stoppard, however, you don’t need to tinker much; it’s all on the page. The more you pick it apart, the less effective the machinery. Gold’s work with the actors is perfectly sound. McGregor and Gyllenhaal are naturally charismatic, intelligent performers who deliver Stoppard’s brainy badinage with nervy aplomb and sensual thrill. It’s just the occasional sing-alongs that got on my nerves.
Both acts begin with the ensemble (which includes Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton as Henry’s and Annie’s soon-to-be ex-spouses) gathered onstage warbling 60s pop songs – “I’ll Be in Trouble,” “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)” – to guitar accompaniment. Henry is sentimentally fond of these syrupy tunes; he prefers them to Bach and opera. But Gold’s excavation and amplification of this element doesn’t add anything other than static. More eloquent is David Zinn’s unit set, a period modular interior that shifts into various living rooms and other locales, suggesting that the characters are living in (and perhaps through) each other’s lives.
If Gold wanted to add an element to reinforce the play’s running argument between authenticity and fakery, he might have commissioned covers of Henry’s cherished tunes, to contrast them with the original recordings. That in turn might have given the entire revival a meta-theatrical spin, as countless audience members at the American Airlines Theare are no doubt mentally comparing this revival to the one in 2000 with Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle – or to the 1984 Broadway premiere with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. (I missed both, which might be good luck for the Roundabout.)
Overreaching conceptual frames aside, the production features a strong ensemble, most notably a brief but vivacious turn by Ronan Raftery as one of Annie’s ardent admirers. And McGregor makes his Broadway debut with assurance, charm and sparkle. Those juicy encomiums he delivers on the true nature of intimacy and literature? He hits them, and how they fly.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York.