The Real Thing

Music is a featured character in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, being given a terrific revival, directed by Sam Gold, by Roundabout Theatre Company. The title made the U2 song, "Even Better Than the Real Thing," get stuck in my head, and that's apropos given the subject matter. The song (not featured in the play) is about a person trying to win over his lover; the chorus proclaims, "you're the real thing // even better than the real thing." Stoppard's play is about relationships, the difference between art and "the real thing," trying to find the elusive real thing—whatever that looks like.

Stoppard (Arcadia) is an intelligent and eloquent writer, so you must pay attention to what the talented ensemble is saying; if you do, you'll find yourself fascinated by the way we interact with each other, by the differences between what we say, what we mean and what we mean to say. (What each character chooses to reveal and in what forum (particularly the intimate feelings revealed in plays as opposed to the skirting language used one on one) made me think of a more recent play, Laura Eason's Sex with Strangers.)

The Real Thing focuses on Henry (Ewan McGregor), a playwright, and his relationships. At rise, he is married to Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), an actress. Charlotte's scene partner is Max (Josh Hamilton), who is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Henry has written a play in which the husband (Max) finds out his wife (Charlotte) is cheating on him. The way the scene plays out—the cleverness of Henry's characters, their quick wit and choice words—will go on to contrast reality, as partners change, the wrong words are used and Henry tries to find the real thing, to truly know someone.

You see, Stoppard is asking us to look at reality vs. heightened reality, i.e., art and artifice. In reality, people don't have the benefit of "thinking time," the time to hear what a person says to you, consider it and think of the exact right words with which to respond. Playwrights' characters do have that luxury, and Henry makes the point, in act two, why the right words are so important. Using a cricket bat as an example, he explains to Annie the power of great writing and oratory, the impact the right words—chosen with thinking time—can have on people and society. (Sure, it's not a new argument, but it's a good one nevertheless.)

McGregor (Beginners) and Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) both make welcome Broadway debuts, though both have other stage credits (McGregor on the West End and Gyllenhaal in LA and off-Broadway). McGregor has a keen facility with Stoppard's loquacious style while Gyllenhaal is understated and a sensitive listener. The ever reliable Nixon (Wit, Sex and the City) returns to The Real Thing, after appearing in its original, 1983 Broadway run. (She played Debbie, Charlotte and Henry's daughter, played here by Madeline Weinstein.) In that staging, Debbie appeared on stage only in act two, so Nixon was able to pull double duty. appearing in the first act of David Rabe's Hurlyburly and then running through Shubert Alley to appear as Debbie in The Real Thing's second act.

Director Gold (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation) finds his own way into The Real Thing, creating interactive musical transitions, rather than just a blackout and a scene change. And those song choices, some written into the script by Stoppard, some chosen by Gold, complement the discourse regarding what we say and what we mean. Most of the songs (60s pop) are about love—trying to find, trying to stay in it, trying to figure out what to do when you're out of it—and much like Henry's plays, they offer an easy out to dealing with the real thing because, maybe, singing or writing or talking about love is even better than the real thing.