Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 30, 2014
The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Sam Gold. Set design by David Zinn. Costume design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting design by Mark Barton. Sound design by Bray Poor. Hair design by Tom Watson. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, with Alex Breaux, Ronan Raftery, Madeline Weinstein.
You know all the songs, of course. Smokey Robinson’s “I’ll Be in Trouble.” “Be My Baby” (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector). There’s naturally “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “I’m Into Something Good.” Heck, even “Sugar, Sugar” makes a brief, bubble-gummy cameo. And though such things may at first seem out of place in a Tom Stoppard play, this, about as close as he’s yet gotten to a traditionally effervescent romantic comedy (if one with some seriously dark edges), it doesn’t take long to see how they relate to the rest of what’s going on.
Director Sam Gold has taken such music, which has always been a component of The Real Thing (which premiered on Broadway in 1984 and was last revived in 2000), and shown how it limns the defining moments of a playwright who’s struggling to locate significance in a life he no longer entirely understands. When these songs appear, whether in recordings by the original artists or, just as frequently, as sung by the (essentially non-singing) actors who inhabit this production, it’s clear that Gold wants to investigate more thoroughly than usual one way we so often absorb these tunes in real life: through the people around us.
But if Gold does succeed in evoking the powerfully distracting soundscape of Henry’s mind by integrating his group sing-alongs, with the full cast usually clustered around the guitar-playing Madeline Weinstein or crooning from the recesses of the stage, Gold dulls rather than sharpens many of the play’s most cutting edges. This, for example, runs the risk of making Max (Josh Hamilton), one of Henry’s actors, too engaged and likable, a problem when he becomes wedged between Henry and Annie later. And though Cynthia Nixon brings a casual, blasé elegance to Max’s costar (and Henry’s ex-wife) Charlotte, her bland singing smothers the character’s necessary spark.
Nixon and Hamilton do convince in the opening scene, a cunning theatrical riff on just how much of themselves playwrights inject into their work; and Nixon is also highly appealing when Charlotte and Henry are chatting with their daughter, Debbie (Weinstein), about her own modern views on love and sex. (Nixon played Debbie in the original production, famously at the same time she was playing a supporting role in Hurlyburly.) But if these actors, along with Ronan Raftery as Annie’s late-show co-star and Alex Breaux as the brooding Brodie, their stage time is highly limited.
As such, only the scenes between Henry and Maggie have verve in the proper amounts. McGregor’s energetic but lackadaisical attitude is in a way right for Henry, who’s at once fully invested and fully disengaged from much of what’s happening around him. And Gyllenhaal imbues with Annie with a weary élan that makes it obvious she’s been down this road — every road — with Henry before, and is running low on the patience she needs to complete one trip with it. This adds some noticeable heft to their interactions, particularly when Henry and Annie alone and facing how little they’re able to approach the other as-is.
The spin is handsome, and it works, but it’s ultimately shallow; you don’t experience much history or depth of feeling between the two that will propel you into the weakening heart of their marriage. This is somewhat unusual as Gold, like Stoppard, is frequently at his best plumbing everyday occurrences for surprisingly vivid feelings. But like Henry, he puts undue weight on the songs, trusting them to carry what the actors alone could easily haul over the finish line. Even the set (David Zinn) and lights (Mark Barton), which render the playing space as a stiff, shadowy box, are out of place, recalling more Gold’s 2012 Off-Broadway production of Look Back in Anger than they do Stoppard’s landscape of emotional possibilities.
It’s not enough to stop this version of The Real Thing from amusing, or even occasionally delighting and transporting, because the play’s a winner and Gold’s direction, if not ideal, highlights all the necessary beats, especially in the functionally perfect finale. But overall, this revival is a lot like elevator music: recognizable and pleasant, but too much of the time not quite real enough.