NEW YORK—The first time “The Real Thing” came to Broadway, it won the Tony Award for best play. The next time it arrived, it won for best play revival. This time it just may sneak away with the trophy for best musical revival.
A thoroughly excellent and tuneful version of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play about love and fidelity opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, directed by Sam Gold and featuring a dozen songs, both sung onstage by the actors between scenes or wafting out of record players.
The Roundabout Theatre Company revival begins with Smokey Robinson and the Temptations’ “I’m in Trouble” with lyrics that prove to be prescient.
“If you decide to make me blue, I’ll be in trouble/If you decide to be untrue, I’ll be in trouble/’Cause no matter what you do or say, I know I’m gonna love you anyway.”
It ends with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and the lyric: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”
Stoppard’s play always embraced music—it features a main character devoted to ’60s pop and the script calls for Strauss, “The Skater’s Waltz,” some Verdi and the tune “A Whiter Shade of Pale”—but Gold has added more, giving the story more layers by including such tailor-made songs as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “I’m Into Something Good.”
Some may grouse that they may be a little too on-point for such a slippery play, but the actors integrate them well, even singing around a guitar.
The seven-member cast is first-rate, led by Ewan McGregor playing the romantically challenged Henry, the too-smart-for-his-own good playwright at the play’s heart. His fight to remain chipper in the face of the crumbling of his romantic life is masterful. McGregor rarely lets his mask down, but when he does—moaning alone or quietly sobbing—it’s heartbreaking.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Annie—Henry’s mistress and then wife—with a fierce opaqueness, her face decorated with a clever, knowing smile or a cool standoffishness. Gyllenhaal telegraphs her character’s unease and real desires with aching subtlety. It’s a pity Henry is oblivious.
Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, Alex Breaux, Ronan Raftery, and Madeline Weinstein have smaller roles but bite into them with grace, particularly Weinstein, who nails the eye rolling and familial joshing as Henry’s daughter and even plays the guitar.
Stoppard, as usual, keeps his audience perpetually on edge, unsure if we’re watching a play-within-a-play or actual events unfolding, a blurring of art and life that’s brilliantly mined. Repetition of scenes, positions and props nudge the echoes home. If this play is almost 30 years old, its age wasn’t visible.
David Zinn’s elegant, book-filled modernist set, which somehow magically transforms into a train, and Kaye Voyce’s flattering costumes both give the show a rich handsomeness keeping with the very English bloodlessness of the action. Only a bowl of dip is used in anger. If this were an American play, there’d be gunfire by the end of Act One.
“The Real Thing”
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
Tickets from roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
Closing date: Jan. 4, 2015
From The Associated Press