Tom Stoppard is back on Broadway . His Indian Ink is playing at the Cort Theatre and now the Roundabout has produced his 1982 success The Real Thing as part of its season at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. The new entry has assembled a stellar cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon. It’s been directed by Sam Gold, who is resident director for this well established company.
Mr. Stoppard has been a major contributor to the theatre scene since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead introduced him to us. He is a great favorite of André Bishop at the Lincoln Center Theatre, and clearly also of Todd Haimes at the Roundabout, so Mr. Stoppard’s popular and less popular works find their ways here from their native England where they usually begin their onstage lives.
I always approach a Tom Stoppard play with high hopes, because almost all of them, and they include The Invention of Love, Arcadia, Hapgood, The Coast of Utopia (3 plays which occupy two evenings) and Travesties, arrive occupied by generally excellent British notices. I’d place Stoppard up there with Edward Albee, Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams as one of those intelligent, imaginative and crafty writers for the theatre of our time. Yet I have often failed to connect with the Stoppard plays and though I admire most of them I have yet to be moved by them.
The Real Thing is reputed to be one of his most accessible and viewer-friendly plays, and its characters and setting are certainly familiar to me — after all, in it he captured a world with which I am familiar, circa 1982, peopled by theatre folks — actors, actresses, playwrights, directors, and there is talk of all of them with a sprinkling of name dropping, a bit of gossip, some very amusing banter, and lots and lots of words.
Clearly Mr. Stoppard loves words. He chooses them very carefully, but his characters onstage and off (and there is a play within a play so we do meet actors playing roles as well as being themselves) sound much alike. There are four principal characters; Henry, a playwright of prominence is a stand-in for Stoppard himself; two are actresses, (Annie and Charlotte); one is Henry’s wife, the other his mistress. Max is an actor, and he and Charlotte in the first scene play out a scene from Henry’s latest, something called House of Cards. It’s followed by a scene at home, and though it is witty and literate and offers Ewen McGregor and Cynthia Nixon juicy lines with which to extract laughs from all of us, as we begin to pay attention to who these two characters are, our early interest is superficial.
The problem is we don’t learn all that much more as the evening progresses. Later we will meet Annie, who has had a liason with Henry, and ultimately — well, I must not reveal what little plot there is to this drawing room comedy that doesn’t have all that much on its mind.
Speaking of the drawing room, David Zinn has created an odd long white wall which is used throughout the evening to serve as several drawing rooms and other rooms as well as the outside wall of a train’s moving passenger car. It managed not to confuse us; we did know where we were meant to be at all times, but it really did look like a bowling alley with furniture. There has never been, and never will be, a drawing (we call it “living”) room as long and narrow as this one.
Kaye Voyce’s gowns for the ladies were lovely to look and reminded us of the very distinctive long and full skirted fashion of the early ’80s. High heels and silk stockings further documented that we were not anywhere near the 21st Century.
Though this play brought us the Broadway debuts of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewen McGregor, they were totally at home and in the case of Ms. G, perfectly comfortable with the Mayfair British accent. Mr. McGregor, a Brit (actually a Scotsman, but unless things change, he’s one of them) certainly sounded authentic. Cynthia Nixon, too, presented us with a new look and sound for herself, as she handled the British rhythms of speech easily and well. Josh Hamilton, who played Max, was fine too.
I wasn’t restless, but I remained an outsider throughout the proceedings. It’s always interesting to be carried into a world that is not like your own, and for that reason I was never restless or bored, but except for the occasionally rich scenes, I remained quite outside the experience . One of these sparkling moments came when Henry proceeded to tell Annie what good writing is all about — by using his cricket stick and the woods that are in it to describe how writers of special talent elevate their work from the familiar or the mundane. For my taste however, most of the evening’s words separated me from these people, and in the end, I just wasn’t all that interested in joining them as they probed and poked into their relationships, no matter how clever or epigrammatic those words were.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Real Thing is onstage through December 12, 2014 at the American Airlines Theatre,
227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.