Shows Worth Seeing:
The Real Thing
By Tom Stoppard
American Airlines Theater
227 W. 42nd St.
Call me perverse, misguided, blind, what have you, but I like Sam Gold’s production of The Real Thing, which nearly every other critic has huffily dismissed as cold and detached from the play’s emotional core. I will concede that the set by David Zinn is odd and visually alienating: a dull expanse of plain wall with a few dense bookshelves and stiffly mod apartment furniture arranged in a way that inhibits both comfort and conversation. The acting, however, strikes me as excellent, as long as you can accept that the portrayals don’t mimic the famous ones you may have fallen in love with by the likes of Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Christine Baranski, and Stephen Dillane.
Yes, The Real Thing is “Stoppard with a heart,” his one work that everyone can enjoy because it deigns to explore love along with ideas. Yet Gold is clearly convinced that too much sticky emotion has crept into past productions and he offers a corrective. Annie, the central love interest, is played by a movie starlet who isn’t naturally sexy but who has made a career out of mimicking sexiness (Maggie Gyllenhaal). And the protagonist Henry, a too-clever-for-his-own-good playwright, is played by a movie star whose debonair unflappability often obstructs him like a male corset (Ewan McGregor). These two are fascinating to watch as they dodge and swerve, deflect and evade one another, playing in what is after all a drama that asks whether any playwright can write truthfully about love. Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton are no less engrossing, amusing and edgy as the ex-es of that main pair.
This is certainly a production to avoid if what you really want is to choke up and cluck about what brainy ol’ Stoppard might have been if he just hadn’t read so damn much. If you’re interested in finding out what this wonderful play is about beneath its erotic smokescreens, though, this might possibly be the version for you.