By Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
Love, Art and Language
Roundabout Theatre Company‘s, The Real Thing, currently at the American Airlines Theatre is a tough, comedic look on love and marriage, and the unforeseen pitfalls encountered by its characters. The problems that arise are timeless, the circumstances unique, and the positions of the main characters, bold; there is no one in this play who is not totally convinced of his own well-defended perspective.
The action opens with Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and Max (Josh Hamilton) in conflict; she, having just returned from a trip to Switzerland–or so she says. Max has found Charlotte’s passport while she was gone, and questions her. Max catches her in a lie, a lie that she soon confesses has been going on for years with her phantom trips.
“What went wrong?” asks Max.
“You’ve done everything wrong,” she says.
“You aren’t anyone I know.” Charlotte, having just arrived, walks out, suitcase in hand.
But we find this is only a play within the play called House of Cards. Charlotte is actually married to the playwright, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and has a teenage daughter, while Max is married to another actor, Annie, (Maggie Gyllenhaal). They are all friends, and the play that was presented works as a kind of overture, like in opera, that foreshadows ensuing themes.
Charlotte is nasty, sarcastic and disillusioned in the play, and when she’s at home with Henry in real life, fails to drop character. Or is this her real character with life and art blurred? Henry is an intellectual playwright, witty and sure of himself, but Charlotte openly scorns him when Max and Annie come to visit. Henry has an fizzy answer for everything, but has a strong rational stance, like someone from a Noel Coward play. Charlotte is not impressed and sharply criticizes Henry for the deficit between his real life and his writing life–and the the difference, she says, is thinking time; he writes plays, and understands characters, but is not so good in the present moment.
The set is the home of Henry and Charlotte–clean, well-ordered, minimal, linear lines–most of the action takes place here. The order belies the chaos underneath their marriage, however. Henry loves R&B, and hates foreign music, in foreign languages, with no dancing– people standing in line donating a kidney for a ticket to hear someone named Callas. He is a successful writer. We see Henry as a witty iconoclast, with strong beliefs on everything. His marriage is an accomodating quagmire, marginally civil but emotionally messy. He may have been reduced to using his marriage for his art, as an observer, removed. But he also philosophically respects the concept of marriage, the commitment, the total revealing of oneself to only one distinct person, while Charlotte looks at marriage as a bargain, to be renewed daily, nothing set in stone.
Then surprise! When Max and Annie come to visit, Annie and Henry lustily pounce on each other as their respective spouses are busy in the kitchen. Annie leads the assault guiltlessly and openly, and pleads with Henry to kiss her, and begs Henry to finally tell his wife that he is leaving her. She’ll do the same with her husband. This reminded me of the funny scene in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” when Amanda and Eliot, bored with their new spouses, decide to leave them on their honeymoons, and to escape to Paris.
Gyllenhaal plays Annie as sexually free and liberated, totally adoring of Henry; she doesn’t care a damn about his wife or her husband’s feelings. She lives for honesty and denounces hypocrisy, and takes what she wants. Henry complies easily. Goodbye Charlotte, goodbye Max. Henry is now free with an adoring lover.
There is much about the nature of writing, ideas of love and commitment, romance. Henry has the tables turned on him, however, when Annie goes to Glasgow to be in a play. She is also supporting Brodie (Alex Breaux), a young radical Scotish dissident who has committed an act of civil disobedience, and tries to get Henry to rewrite his book while he is in prison. Henry refuses, saying the lad can’t write, and his book is filled with tired political cliches from the left that have little merit. Annie defends Brodie’s vitality, while Henry thinks he’s a posturing lout without substance–which we later find is true when he is eventually released.
Returning from Glasgow a day late, where she has played in a run of Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Henry questions Annie in a similar fashion that Max questioned Charlotte in the opening play. She too confesses, yes, she has had a dalliance with a cast member, Billy, the night before, but tries to explain it meant nothing, that she loves him only.
McGregor is a wonderful presence on stage, good looking, intellegent, and filled with the right energy–(Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting, etc.) But here, as a character, he remains even throughout, doesn’t transform or have any great moments of insight as to why he has problems in his life with women–his defense is a removed kind of wit to the end, without any deepening. He feels that whenever he gets close to a woman suddenly ‘a wheel comes off’. He says brilliant insightful things, is funny, but it would be much more interesting for his character to descend, and come up stronger and register new insight.
Gyllenhaal is a slinky, loose and free presence on stage. She exudes confidence, and plays Annie perfectly–self assured, brave, taking what she wants, convinced. She was most believable. Nixon plays her role properly–shrill, bitter, and sarcastic; she stands straight and delivers her lines with serious intent showing her discontent with her marriage. Josh Hamilton, as Max, showed the most range of emotion with his unbraiding of Henry, while defending Annie’s position on Brodie, and too, with his anguish when Annie swings the velvet hammer and calmly says goodbye.
All this is familiar territory for an audience today, but what Stoppard says and how he says it, is still a thrilling experience. He packs a lot of knowledge into brief stage time, and nothing ever lags. Catch the show while it lasts.
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Sam Gold
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission