Can you understand a love story from five seconds of stage time? Sam Gold's new production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is majorly flawed but the final moment of the show made me well up with tears, delivering a wallop of emotion from an otherwise cold to the touch production.*
Stoppard's play on love, fidelity, and artifice is brought to
life by a literal soundtrack of pop songs. Playwright Henry is obsessed with
words, meaning, and often a cool detachment when it comes to emotion but it's sugary pop songs of the 1950's and 60's that tell
us what he feels in his heart. Henry (Ewan McGregor) writes a play which stars his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and his friend Max (Josh Hamilton) who is married to actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In short order it's clear that Annie and Henry have fallen for each other and the two marriages split apart. Henry and Annie marry and struggle through their own relationship. Throughout the entire play there are many music cues and discussions of music within the play.
But beyond the requirements of the script, Sam Gold
foregrounds music in an unexpected way. Not only does music lead in and out of scenes or end up the topic of conversation, but Gold has the cast sing through scene
changes and transitions. Is this the soundtrack of Henry's mind? Are
these the voices in his head? And in these transitions, Gold stages
moments between characters. They see each other and contribute to the
breaking down of one scene and setting of the next. This is an
incestuous bunch of characters and this collaboration and theater troupe mentality
reminds us of the artifice of the play we are watching and not just the
plays within the play that we see that take place within the universe of The Real Thing. These are not actors who are known for their musical theater chops (well Ewan McGregor did star in Guys and Dolls). The singing is not polished but it brings a frailty and humanity out in their performances. Stoppard can be so intellectual and hold audiences at arm's length. There's something in the singing that collapses that a bit.
With a play about the stories we tell ourselves, the layering of a play
within a play, there's one more layer of the artifice using the musical pop song love as an expression of the character's feelings in those moments. There's
something wonderfully immature and carefree about this soundtrack. It
is idealized love as it should be without the over intellectualization of Henry/Stoppard. And Henry who is always so detached and
analytical is made more romantic in this pop album world. But this production does not actually break through to real emotion for me except in that final beat.
In a departure from the original play, the final music cue (which has changed during the preview period) has gone from I'm a Believer to God Only Knows. In this final moment, Henry fields a call from Max who is getting remarried. Henry and Annie are meant to be reflecting on how much they need each other despite ongoing infidelities and their fundamental differences. Henry kisses Annie goodnight and a song is playing on the radio. It's God Only Knows. As Max is talking on the line, Henry stops and starts to sing along with the song. "God only knows what I'd be without you." McGregor shows desperation, sadness, and gratitude in this line. He means it. It's the only "true" emotion I saw Henry express and of course he's cribbing his emotions from The Beach Boys. And maybe I felt it so much more because I had felt so little all along.
Gold seems to be taking one of the most accessible Stoppard plays and subverting it ever so slightly.
Perhaps it should not be rewarded that he's making it less accessible
but I liked the singing--bringing a harmony to a play about discord. And I liked the visual layering of glass and windows, reflections, and silhouettes. It was visually dynamic but did not necessarily serve the emotional center of the play which I felt was lacking.
I wish Ewan McGregor had been able to get under Henry's veneer. It's
easy to play along with the badinage and Stoppard wit and not stop to
feel anything. McGregor didn't quite have the gravity when it was called
for. His frequent smiles made him a more jovial character than I
expected. He ended up more happily smug than distant or arrogant. The scene with his daughter should have felt more weight than it did. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the guilt-free
Annie at the start with total aplomb. But as her character gets more frustrated and her attention strays I wished her performance had varied. Everything felt too chilled out and even-keeled for her character. The conflict between Henry and Annie fizzles because neither actor can seem to touch the fear, anger, loss, or frustration with enough gravitas to give their fights real stakes. On the other hand, I thought Cynthia Nixon handled her character's shift
from angry/frustrated wife to softer ex-wife well. And Ronan Raftery as Billy makes an impression through his few scenes.
I thought the combination of a playwright I often love (with a few exceptions) and a director I often
love (with a few exceptions) would prove to be Broadway dynamite. But for me the one burning candle of passion in the final moment of the play was the only spark I saw.
*I saw a preview and perhaps before the show was frozen for critical review. I paid for my ticket.