Review: The Real Thing

Real Thing

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.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Wit

One might be concerned that a play about a woman dealing with ovarian cancer would be at best dull, at worst depressing. How welcome it is, then, that for most of its hour and a half length, playwright Margaret Edson’s Wit fulfills the promise of its title.

Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon), a scholar who devoted her life to the exacting study of the work of 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne, confronts cruel paradoxes – and great physical pain – as she becomes the subject of research after she agrees to be part of an experimental treatment for her cancer.

Fun stuff, right? Actually, surprisingly, for the most part Wit is fun. Dr. Bearing is not the sentimental type and her toughness, and, yes, wit, keep the story from being more maudlin or depressing than it has to be. Edson’s writing exquisitely walks the line between erudition and accessibility, neither insulting the audience’s intelligence nor talking down to it. As Bearing’s condition worsens, her welling emotions come across in a way that is truly affecting, rather than maudlin. The play lingers for a little too long after it has completed its story and made its points, but this is a quibble with a mostly tight, lean piece of writing.

Nixon does a terrific job of communicating the intellectual rigor of which Vivian is rightly proud. I found myself wishing that she would put across more of the passion and joy of scholarship, but that could just be my own sentimentality as the son of two college professors coming to the surface. Director Lynne Meadow smartly lets Edson’s sophisticated words do the heavy lifting, setting them in a production that finds its power in its simplicity. Wit certainly isn’t a laugh riot, but it is a smart, ruefully funny show that offers many rewards.

For tickets, click here.