This play has a reputation as being one of the most accessible plays by the notoriously cerebral British playwright Tom Stoppard. I understand why, since the love story at its center, despite many intellectual and moral turns, ends up being rather sweet. Still, as much as I found to enjoy in The Real Thing – and as much as I certainly appreciate Stoppard’s insights and intelligence – if this is Stoppard at his most accessible, I’m truly never going to be his biggest fan.
The play follows Henry (Ewan McGregor), a playwright whose marriage to actress Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) is slowly, almost painlessly dissolving. After Henry’s mistress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) leaves her husband so that she and Henry can begin a new life together, the new couple struggles to figure out if their relationship is indeed “the real thing.”
It’s a tricky business balancing these people’s crisp exteriors with the constantly shifting feelings underneath, and McGregor and Gyllenhaal do a decent job of playing surfaces against depth. Nixon also makes a solid impression as Henry’s haughtily smirking, somewhat older wife. Sam Gold’s direction tends toward the cool and restrained, which has the benefit making moments of deep emotion stand out in sharp relief.
The reputation I mentioned above is definitely earned – this is a significantly warm play from the author of such flinty pieces of intellect as Jumpers or Travesties. Perhaps seeing Stoppard’s even more emotionally engaging Indian Ink very recently has made me extra alert to the cooler colors in The Real Thing. On balance, if you’re a Stoppard fan, The Real Thing is not to be missed. If, like me, you’re not, it’s interesting but certainly not essential viewing.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.