The Real Thing

The Real Thing

If you went to high school with me, then you know I fell in love with Ewan McGregor when I was 17-years-old, saw “Moulin Rouge” for the first time, and my young mind exploded. You also know that I had a Seth Green phase earlier in high school, but let’s move past that for the moment. After I proceeded to watch as many of Ewan’s films as I could the following year, I eagerly awaited the moment to see him in a live play (since I tried and subsequently failed to see him in Guys and Dolls when I was studying abroad in England). So yes, I admit, Ewan was the primary reason I wanted to attend the newest revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a playwright. His current play is about a woman who cheats on her husband, starring his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and an actor named Max (Josh Hamilton). In real life, Max is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When we learn that Henry and Annie are actually having an affair, art begins to imitate life. Or is it the other way around?

Sadly, this production left me wanting in many ways. I wasn’t invested in these characters, emotionally or intellectually. They don’t need to be sympathetic (which they aren’t) for me to be invested, but I still have to want to go on a journey with them. Instead I felt left behind. This was in part due to the story itself being confusing at times (intentionally), and it can be hard to follow because the language is so dense. But that aside, I couldn’t connect to the style itself. It was very presentational and plotted out. Rather than discovering on the line, all of the words seemed planned. If a character had a big speech, it was performed like he or she had memorized it and had reached the appropriate time to recite it. It did not feel spontaneous.

Matt and I were discussing that maybe this was because of the slightly heightened, highly intellectual language, but on the other hand, Shakespeare is heightened and poetic. Even if you don’t catch all of the metaphors, subtext, and meanings in the first hear-through, you are still with the characters. You’re discovering things together, in the moment, no matter the density of the words. For example, when I saw the revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia a few years back, I went in blind, and while I was desperately confused at times (lots of math talk in that play), I still felt like I was there with the characters, going through something with them, trying to figure it out together.

The Real Thing won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1982 and Best Revival of a Play in 2000. It took home the Drama Desk, and the leads won Tony Awards in both productions. I mean, it makes sense! Stoppard is one of our most popular playwrights, known for his intense, philosophical, beautiful dialogue and topics. And I love all four of these actors in their other works. I think the root may be a direction/style choice. I’m curious what the previous productions did differently that made them so successful.

This play is about love, marriage, and in/fidelity. It’s about the feelings that are left unsaid, acting the opposite, playing it cool. We find out rather quickly that the first scene is a performance, a play within a play, but come the second scene in “reality,” it still feels like a performance. This might have been the point, as it partly represents the lack of honesty being shared among the characters, but then again, there needs to be a contrast. There are only a couple of moments with that kind of truth sprinkled in (Ewan has a touching moment alone onstage in the second act that I appreciated). I don’t mean that the characters need to show this truth to each other, but the vulnerability could be shared with us. Someone should be honest with the audience and make that connection, if only for a moment, because we want, we need the real thing.

The Real Thing
Written by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Sam Gold
American Airlines Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor

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