Thursday, October 30, 2014

'The Real Thing': Revival of Tom Stoppard's Romantic Comedy Is Unfortunately Meh

Quick:  What pop song from the late 1950s is being featured in two different current Broadway shows?

While you are pondering that, let me ask another question.  How could a play written by a world class playwright, a play that won multiple Tony Awards both for its original Broadway production and for a later revival, a play that in its current incarnation features a talented cast and director, be such a yawn-inducing experience to sit through?

Let’s take care of the good news first.  The answer to the first question is Oh Carol, a hit tune for Neil Sedaka in 1959.  It is featured in a live rendition in Beautiful:  The Carole King Musical and via a recording in the revival of the play we’re about to talk about, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

The Real Thing, originally produced in 1982, is Stoppard’s take on love, marriage, trust, and betrayal among the British well-to-do. In many ways, you could say it follows in a straight-line path that includes Noël Coward’s Private Lives from 1930, the 1958 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate (the British connection is, of course, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal from 1978. 

By 1982, Stoppard had already penned more than a dozen plays and had made a name for himself as a clever wordsmith in the arena of absurdist theater, with such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers, and Travesties. With The Real Thing, he tested new waters by putting his hand to what is essentially a romantic comedy, albeit one that employs clever little tricks, literary references, politics, and a serious consideration of questions of the heart. What is it, he asks, that brings people together and then breaks them apart?  To put it another way, and since we’ve already brought Cole Porter into the picture, “What is this thing called love?”

The main characters are three actors, Max, Charlotte, and Annie, and one playwright, Henry. In the beginning, Max is married to Annie, and Henry is married to Charlotte (though, due to one of Mr. Stoppard’s theatrical tricks it takes us a while to figure all this out).  Later, after some onstage hanky-panky and offstage divorces, it is Annie and Henry who are married to each other, and, once things settle down, it is their relationship that becomes the focus of the play. 

Because it mixes elements of a comedy of manners and modern realism, and because it steps outside of itself to comment on the “art of making art,” The Real Thing can be a challenge to produce, but done well, it can be touch both the mind and the heart, and can provide a wonderful opportunity to display first-class acting and directing talents. Back in 1984, with its initial Broadway production, The Real Thing won the Tony Award for best play, and garnered additional Tonys for Jeremy Irons as Henry, Glenn Close as Annie, and Christine Baranski as Charlotte, and for its director Mike Nichols.  A production in 2000 led to Tonys for Stephen Dillane as Henry and Jennifer Ehle as Annie, as well as one for best revival.    

But that was then; this is now. The current revival at the American Airlines Theatre falls flat in every way imaginable, with perhaps the single exception of Ewan McGregor, making his Broadway debut as Henry. Josh Hamilton as Max, Cynthia Nixon as Charlotte, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Annie are all either terribly miscast, or they are all poorly directed by Sam Gold, whose own history as a director has run hot  (his collaborations with playwright Annie Baker; and Fun Home, which will be coming to Broadway after a highly praised run at the Public Theater) and cold (Picnic; Look Back In Anger). 

Not to belabor things here, but nothing works, from David Zinn’s uninspired set that is stretched across the stage like a film in letterbox format, to Kay Voyce’s equally uninspired costumes, to the very poor renditions of British accents coming out of the mouths of the American actors, a flaw that is on heightened display every time Mr. McGregor converses with any of the others.

Unfortunately, the best thing about The Real Thing is the interspersing of pop tunes like the aforementioned Oh Carol (Henry is a fan of music from the 1960s), in which members of the cast join in singing between scenes.  Maybe it would lift the audience’s spirits to be invited to sing along.

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