Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Tom Stoppard's “The Real Thing.” | JOAN MARCUS
Tom Stoppard’s warped romantic dramedy “The Real Thing” still packs a punch. The original Broadway production, featuring Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski, won a raft of Tony Awards in 1984, and a revival in 2000 also did quite well. I suspect the gripping, star-filled revival, courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, will again be a contender this season.
As the title suggests, “The Real Thing” examines the blurred lines between truth and delusion, art and artifice, and love and lust. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a smart aleck who writes dramas about crumbling relationships — his characters register as more believable than the actual ones in “The Real Thing.” A couple of scenes are plays within the play, though it can take us a while to figure that out. It’s a rigorous, multilayered character study that leaves us breathless.
The intricate plotting threatens to spin out of control. As the play begins, Henry is married to Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), and his buddy Max (Josh Hamilton) is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But soon, an affair between Henry and Annie is exposed; the marriages collapse and the new couple moves in together.
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Annie is an actress who ardently supports a boorish activist named Brodie (Alex Breaux) who was famously beaten by cops and imprisoned, and she later stars in the play he writes about the incident. Henry, naturally, is appalled by Brodie’s crude attempt at playwriting.
It’s not Brodie who Henry should be worried about, but Billy (the hunky Ronan Raftery), Annie’s co-star in a production of, ironically enough, the controversial classic “Tis Pity She’s a Whore.”
Despite the breakup of their marriage, Henry and Charlotte, meanwhile, have not become enemies. Their precocious, guitar-strumming teen daughter Debbie (Madeline Weinstein) requires them to stay in contact, and there’s the inevitable scene late in the play where the exes reflect on their bumpy journeys.
Sure, “The Real Thing” is laden with Stoppard’s dense, mind-bending wordplay, and Henry’s diatribes can grow irksome. But under the smart direction of Sam Gold (“Fun Home”) the piece stays aloft, uplifted by pleasing musical selections, mostly 1960s pop and classical. At the start of each act and during scene changes, the cast sings along with the tunes, injecting a touching dose of realness to the proceedings. It’s a risky move that pays off.
David Zinn’s efficient set of loft-like abodes, crammed with rows of books and vinyl records, is punctuated by a pair of massive hi-fi sound systems that, to our 21st century eyes, seem like quaint antiques. When the living room morphs into a set evoking a moving train, it’s impressive.
The wobbly narrative is kept steady by solid performances. Gyllenhall, largely a screen actor, is pitch-perfect, bringing a charming intensity to the role of Annie. If McGregor’s utterly engaging turn borders on bombastic, it’s perfectly in sync with Henry’s uncontrollable urge to critique everything and everybody. Nixon, who, by the way, played Debbie in the original Broadway production, is well cast as the stoic, cynical Charlotte.
No passage in this turbulent drama captures Stoppard’s analysis of authenticity more effectively than Annie’s lecture to Henry.
“You write because you’re a writer,” says Annie. “Even when you write about something, you have to think up something to write about, just so you can keep writing… Then somebody who isn’t in on the game comes along, like Brodie, who really has something to write about, something real, and you can’t get through it.”
Henry is a brainiac with a weakness for old pop music, while Annie prefers classical. The selection of pop tunes will certainly appeal to theatergoers of a certain age who have a soft spot for the Everly Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Herman’s Hermits, the Archies, the Beach Boys, and Procol Harum. That these catchy tunes might be considered just as “real” as a Bach orchestral suite is just one reason why this production is “The Real Thing.”
Three decades later, in a gadget-dominated culture where virtual experiences substitute for substance, “The Real Thing” resonates more forcefully than ever. Were the play written today, poor Henry and Annie would really have something to carp about.
THE REAL THING | Roundabout Theatre Company | American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 4: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $67-$137 at RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-279-1300 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission