The Real Thing, review: Ewan McGregor leads a triumphant cast in Tom Stoppard revival

The Scottish actor starred alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon at the American Airlines Theatre, New York

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The Independent Culture

New York theatre toasts Tom Stoppard like no other living playwright. To mark the 2006 production of his trilogy The Coast of Utopia, Lincoln Center Theatre created a trio of Russian-themed cocktails. While audiences at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s recent off-Broadway revival of his Indian Ink starring Romola Garai were served a cocktail consisting of gin and tonic and curry cocktail spice.

Stoppard and alcohol don’t really mix because you tend to need your wits about you to follow the intellectual wordplay of which he is so fond. But perhaps a Ewan McGregor cocktail- a dry martini, say, with orange bitter- should be mixed at the American Airlines Theater for this revival of Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing.

McGregor deserves to be feted for his brilliant Broadway turn as Henry, a witty, arrogant playwright navigating the consequences of adultery in life and work. McGregor has mostly gravitated towards dark material in his career and here he captures the torment and pain arising from being both betrayer and betrayed. He has never before displayed the affecting warmth and lightness of touch he brings to Henry and it’s a revelation.

Credit must go to the American director Sam Gold who has coaxed winning performances out of all his cast in this Roundabout production. Maggie Gyllenhaal, always at her best playing bohemian romantics, shines as Annie, Henry’s sprightly, sly mistress, an anti-nuclear pacifist and sexually enchanting actress. Cynthia Nixon is accomplished as Henry’s wife Charlotte, another actress.

The Real Thing is a structural minefield for any director but from the first scene in which Charlotte is romancing Annie’s boyfriend Max (Josh Hamilton) in the play-within-a-play, Gold excels at illuminating the themes of artifice, commitment, passion and authenticity. Apart from replacing the climatic song The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” with “Da Doo Ron Ron” in the show’s repertoire of Sixties’ songs, Gold stays faithful to a tale of unfaithful intrigue  where the only fidelity on show is to the power of the word. He’s helped by David Zinn’s elegant set which reinforces the distinction between stagecraft and reality. 

Some aspects have dated- a playwright’s knowledge of pop music is now an asset, not a liability, and I wish costume designer Kaye Voce hadn’t made Henry resemble a 1960s schoolmaster rather than a 1980s writer. Nevertheless, The Real Thing, a semi-autobiographical play from Stoppard where his focus is uncharacteristically trained on mysteries of the heart rather than on cracking historical or scientific codes, remains bracingly relevant. The useless play written by the political prisoner Brodie (Alex Breaux), befriended by Annie, contains musings on smashing the system which wouldn’t be out of place in Russell Brand’s Revolution.

Contrasting the messy way in which art imitates life in The Real Thing, this play always seems to enjoy a charmed life when revived. Perhaps it’s because Stoppard at his most relatable and quotable (“If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at twenty-two, the history of music would have been very different,” Henry muses. “As would the history of aviation.”) A terrific cast led by McGregor has triumphed with it yet again.