One of the intriguing things about theater is the way that plays sometimes say the exact opposite of what their author intended. This is what happens in David Leveaux' superb production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing."
Of all the English playwrights who came to prominence in the 1960s, only two were so distinctive that their names came to sum up a whole style. If critics wanted to indicate clipped phrases and an air of menace, they called a play Pinteresque. If they wanted to indicate verbal wit and intellectual games, it was Stoppardian.
Tom Stoppard's reputation for dashing repartee and dazzling ingenuity was well-earned. But it carried with it a feeling that the cleverness was just a fireworks display - colorful, entertaining, at times awesomely impressive, but without real emotion.
"The Real Thing," returning to Broadway for the first time since Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons played the leads in 1984, is meant to refute this notion.
Its central character, Henry, is an English playwright rather like Stoppard himself: brilliant, witty, arrogant and intolerant of those he regards as stupid.
The play is steeped in all things theatrical. The opening scene is an episode from Henry's latest play. One of the stars, Charlotte, is his wife. The other, Max, is the husband of the woman with whom Henry is having an affair.
By the second half of "The Real Thing," Henry is living with Max' ex-wife, Annie. Because she, too, is an actress, the dialogue and the action are saturated with theatrical references and in-jokes. But Henry, despite being an intellectual, turns out to be a passionate romantic. And through him, Stoppard wants us to know that he can write a play about that most basic of all emotions, love.
The irony, though, is that "The Real Thing" remains stubbornly Stoppardian. There's less to all the stuff about love than meets the eye. What works is the verbal energy and the clever game-playing.
This isn't the fault of the production; on the contrary, Stephen Dillane as Henry and Jennifer Ehle as Annie are a playwright's dream. Dillane strikes a skillful balance between Henry's arrogance, sarcasm and impatience on the one hand and his yearning for love on the other. Without softening the character too much, he makes us understand why Henry is attractive to women.
Ehle, meanwhile, glows with life, intelligence and sensuality. Her Annie is both kind and dangerous, so open and compassionate that she seems doomed to break hearts.
So if there's something abstract about the play, it's not because the actors fail to put flesh on Stoppard's ideas. Or because the web of loyalties and betrayals is not spun by a writer of extraordinary dexterity and invention.
Maybe it's just that, like Henry, Stoppard finds it hard to "write love" without it coming out "embarrassing” either childish or rude." And because he's far too dignified to write embarrassing lines, he prefers to write "about" love than to run the risk of sentimentality.
The result may not be completely satisfying or convincing. But it does suggest that there are far worse things a playwright can be called than "Stoppardian.”
“The Real Thing" is the real thing - an exciting, hilarious and beautifully performed look at the terrain of art and heart.
The Tom Stoppard play of 1984 received a fresh, brisk production at London's Donmar Warehouse this spring, and it is this show, with its cast intact, that has moved to Broadway's Barrymore Theatre.
In the course of this teasingly tricky investigation of human relationships, we discover that the stage is and is not life. The look of the play's production is modern and abstract - the set and costumes by Vicki Mortimer suggest both the stage and reality. Director David Leveaux has thrust the action forward and made it more vivid than at the Donmar.
As the play opens, architect Max (played by Nigel Lindsay in a solid, smugly comic job) is discovering what seems like adultery by his wife, Charlotte (Sarah Woodward in a debonair, droll vein.) This turns out to be a scene in a play, after which we're at home with Charlotte and her playwright husband, Henry (Stephen Dillane in a miraculous, masterful performance.)
Henry slouches about their house in scruffy duds, playing Herman's Hermits and Procol Harum, working out his surprising destiny - which is largely connected to the young actress Annie, who is Max's real-life wife.
Moments after they arrive, Annie expresses her passion for Henry - while Max and Charlotte are in the kitchen making crudites.
Jennifer Ehle (seen here on TV in "Pride and Prejudice") plays Annie with a surprising sensuality and politically committed spirit. Gorgeous and fiery, Ehle is a thrill to watch.
Two years later, Annie and Henry are still together. She's going up to Glasgow to do the Jacobean incest drama " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore." He's being nasty about a script she's interested in, written by a self-styled political prisoner, Brodie, who Henry thinks is a horrible writer.
On the train to Scotland, Annie meets the young actor Billy (Oscar Pierce), who plays her brother in "Pity," and she warms to him, finding him ideal for the prisoner script.
Henry, who has fixed up the script despite his objections, frets her absence. Eventually, Annie admits her attraction to Billy, but insists that this need not threaten the relationship she has with Henry.
After a time, Henry accepts her point of view - after, among other things, talking to his 17-year-old daughter Debbie (a fine performance by Charlotte Parry).
Dillane is hilarious and wrenchingly touching as the man who learns to blend his writing skills and his emotional life. Ehle achieves subtlety and sense as a woman who mixes art and life.
This is an extraordinary presentation of a funny, smart play vibrating with contemporary concerns - art and life and sex and sacrifice and rock classics.
It's the play in which Stoppard found the English - and, through the English, himself - approachable. And it's gorgeously performed by, above all, the witty and achingly vulnerable Dillane.
Now here is a man you would surely love to have at your table at one of those insufferably self-important dinner parties. He speaks in sentences that might have been cut by a jeweler; he banishes conversational cliches by merely cocking an eyebrow, and he has somehow turned undergraduate self-consciousness into a highly evolved form of charm.
What's more, when he describes himself as a romantic, you believe him, just as you believe that he suffers for it. That makes him easier to take when he seems a little, well, superior. There is much to be said for the aesthetic value of shadow in a bright presence.
Such are the attributes of Henry, the playwright who wrote that West End hit ''House of Cards,'' or at least Henry as he is represented by Stephen Dillane, the immensely appealing center of the immensely appealing revival of Tom Stoppard's ''Real Thing,'' which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Under the accomplished direction of David Leveaux, who brought a very different kind of finesse to last season's ''Electra,'' this is a production that should lure those New Yorkers who say they rarely go to the theater because it's too juvenile or too vulgar or too ponderous, usually opting instead for yet another dinner party.
And with the delectable Jennifer Ehle playing self-confident body to Mr. Dilane's self-questioning mind, the show has a sensual sparkle that was less evident in the fine Tony-winning New York incarnation of 1984 with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close.
''The Real Thing'' -- an import from the Donmar Warehouse, the current epicenter of theatrical glamour in London (''Cabaret,'' ''The Blue Room'') -- is a rare thing even in what has been an exceptionally strong season for straight plays on Broadway: an elegant comedy of infidelity filled with the sort of comebacks that people only wish they were capable of themselves.
True, this 1982 play from the author of ''Jumpers'' and ''Arcadia'' is also always subverting itself, pointing out how some things, love among them, defy glib articulation. But, ah, how articulately it manages to say so. If its structural game-playing seems a tad too clever this time around and its second act weaker than its first, the fact remains that few comedies have ever managed to have it so successfully both ways.
When ''The Real Thing'' first opened, it was greeted with the kind of exclamations that heralded Garbo's debut in talking pictures. ''Stoppard feels!'' was the delighted implication of most of the reviews, a sense that the most dizzyingly cerebral of British playwrights had at last led with his heart instead of his head. What gave the play an extra savory twist was the fact that it was about a dizzyingly cerebral playwright who confesses at one point that he just doesn't know how to ''write love.'' The title itself seemed a charming admission of the same defeat, using the sort of nonspecific noun that was anathema to its main character. Which isn't to say that Mr. Stoppard had forsaken his playful intellectualism or sure hand for form.
''The Real Thing'' begins with a sort of literary trompe l'oeil: a scene in which a husband confronts his wife with her presumed infidelity. This turns out to be a scene in a London play by Henry, performed by Charlotte (Sarah Woodward), an actress who is Henry's wife in real life, and Max (Nigel Lindsay), who is married to another actress, Annie (Ms. Ehle), with whom Henry is having an affair.
The scene becomes a reference point for the rest of the evening, as two real-life marriages shatter, echoing and diverging from the play within the play. Other touchstones are provided by dialogue from such classic plays of passion as ''Miss Julie'' and '' 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.'' And Henry, determined to conquer love on the page, comes down with writer's block.
Although Charlotte early on observes that the difference between dialogue onstage and in life is that life demands ''thinking time'' between epigrams, the characters are still remarkably quick on the uptake: Henry, especially, of course, but so are Charlotte and Henry's teenage daughter, Debbie (Charlotte Parry), and Charlotte herself.
It is a testament to the arbitrariness of love that Henry and Charlotte seem to be more naturally matched than Henry and Annie, who while obviously intelligent is less deft with the mot juste. She is also unswervingly headstrong and gets involved politically with an imprisoned Scottish soldier (Joshua Henderson) and sexually with a younger actor (Oscar Pearce). The distress these events cause Henry lead him to lively disquisitions on the virtues and limitations of language, including an unforgettable speech with a cricket bat as a visual aid.
Mr. Dillane's Henry delivers this moment pricelessly to Ms. Ehle's Annie. As he tries to explain why a leaden script written by Annie's incarcerated soldier is no good, you can see him getting high on the combined delights of his sporting metaphor, his love of language and his love of the woman to whom he is speaking.
Mr. Dillane, whose high and exposed forehead suggests both a temple of thought and an irresistible target, is never less than captivating. Even his brightly colored socks (the perfectly detailed costumes are by Vicki Mortimer, who also designed the sets) inspire affection.
There's nary a trace of the snide superiority and remoteness that Jeremy Irons brought to his equally inspired but very different interpretation of the role, and it could be argued that his Henry is a tad too likable. It's hard to understand why he makes people so angry, and the character almost becomes a holy martyr to the causes of pure language and pure love.
Fortunately, there is another side to be heard from, and it is ably embodied by Ms. Ehle. This rising star, best known as Elizabeth in the recent television adaptation of ''Pride and Prejudice,'' wears her character's sensuality, and her awareness of its effect on others, without coyness or irony. There is no smugness about her either (and there was, a bit, in Ms. Close's portrayal), but there is a remarkable self-possession, especially evident in the smile with which she covers discomfort. This Annie easily holds her own against the older Henry and his artillery of words.
All the actors are good, however, especially the women, to whose characters Mr. Stoppard has tellingly devoted the greatest care. As Henry's wife (soon to be ex-) and daughter, Ms. Woodward and Ms. Parry incisively present figures who have both been shaped by Henry and somehow gotten beyond him, like Eliza Dolittle with Henry Higgins.
Mr. Leaveaux's staging adroitly balances the boulevard comedy with an emotional gravity, an awareness that people are being seriously wounded here. The badinage feels natural precisely because directors and actors are so attentive to what bodies say that words don't.
Watch, for example, Ms. Ehle's postures when Annie breaks off with Max (something to which Mr. Lindsay responds harrowingly); when she keeps trying to touch Henry during an argument and when she kisses Mr. Pearce's young actor in a way that unquestionably confirms her dominance in that relationship.
This balancing of the cerebral and the emotional is almost perfectly realized in the first act. In the longer second act you become conscious of a script annotating itself, and the way the play scores off Mr. Pearce's character, the dubious object of Annie's political engagement, still feels entirely too easy. One other caveat: Ms. Mortimer's sets seem out of scale at the Barrymore, and when the performers climb that long upstage staircase, it's like a challenge out of ''Pilgrim's Progress.''
These are minor objections, however, about a production that so expertly fills a vacuum on Broadway: the urbane comedy. ''The Real Thing,'' of course, is something more than that as well.
Throughout the evening, vintage pop songs are played, numbers like ''Do Wah Diddy Diddy'' and ''Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?'' It's a running joke that this is the only kind of music to which Henry responds. But the play takes the emotional pull of such music, and the varied feelings it addresses, seriously.
As I was leaving ''The Real Thing,'' I noticed a middle-aged member of the audience singing the Monkees hit ''I'm a Believer,'' a recording of which ends the production. It's an upbeat song, but the man looked puzzled and just a bit melancholy. Mr. Stoppard, one imagines, would have been pleased by the response.
Absent a new Tom Stoppard play on Broadway — “The Invention of Love,” anyone? — a revival of Stoppard’s 1984 hit “The Real Thing” is certainly welcome. Welcome, too, is the legit advent of Miramax Films, which joins the small cadre of Broadway’s filmland angels with this revival imported from London’s ever-hot Donmar Warehouse. But most welcome of all are Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle, two English actors who are making terrific Broadway debuts in David Leveaux’s intentionally muted, intensely thoughtful production of Stoppard’s brilliant dissection of various truths and illusions of love and romance.
Audiences who recall the starry, Tony-winning original Broadway production, with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, may be surprised — and even taken aback — at the cool, ruminative tone of Leveaux’s production.
It’s built like a delicately balanced house of cards around the ineffably charismatic but extraordinarily subtle performance of Dillane as Henry, the playwright (and author of a play called “House of Cards,” of course) who departs one marriage to enter a blissful new one, only to have the romantic ideals that have defined all his emotional commitments called into question when his new marriage threatens to unravel.
The chilly-chic sets of Vicki Mortimer recall her fine work on last season’s “Closer,” a play about love and infidelity that makes a savage contemporary companion piece to Stoppard’s.
Her designs are dominated by moving panels of smoked glass that may be said to typify the production’s aesthetic. The surface sheen of Stoppard’s scintillating language is treated with casual respect here — it’s not buffed to a high polish and served gleamingly over the footlights, as it is in most productions of the play.
Here the emphasis is on the feelings that glow dimly beneath the surface of the words, the darting glances that add a question mark to a witticism, the pauses that speak more eloquently than even the eloquent Stoppard, particularly when they’re being sculpted by an actor equipped with the amazing instincts of Dillane.
Set changes are effected onstage with a decided lack of emphasis on speed, allowing the last moments of a scene to linger briefly in the audience’s mind. Leveaux’s deliberate pacing takes a while to get used to, and indeed the pulse of the first act is dangerously low, but when the rewards of this slow-fuse staging arrive in the second act, they are ample.
Stoppard’s Henry is a serial romantic, the kind of highbrow guy who thinks pop songs can capture the essence of love in a way his own writing can’t, the “happiness expressed in banality and lust.”
He leaves his first wife Charlotte (Sarah Woodward) with nary a regret when he falls in love with Annie (Ehle), also an actress. At the end of the first act, when Annie not-so-playfully teases him about his lack of jealousy, Henry responds by admitting it’s because he feels “superior” in his knowledge of loving and being loved. He relishes “the insularity of passion ... the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover ... There’s you and there’s them.”
Henry takes love, and its insularity, for granted — a telling detail of Mortimer’s subtle costume designs is Henry’s inveterately casual dress; he’s always in his socks, even when others aren’t. It’s a symbol of his cozy sureness of himself and of his love, the kind of presumption that can be mistaken — and is — for indifference and, yes, superiority.
Henry lives in a world where words and emotions have cut-and-dried meanings — the play’s great cricket-bat speech is a beautiful, funny paean to the power of linguistic precision — but he fails to see that he’s alone there. Everyone else inhabits a less rarefied, more dimly lit place, the real world, where things cannot be defined quite as neatly as Henry might like, where love and commitment are loose and mutable things.
Henry’s gradual descent into this sadder sphere is the core of the play, and it’s a moving progress to observe, thanks to Dillane’s deeply humane performance. He duly conveys all the linguistic delights of Stoppard’s writing, the moving ruminations on the pains and pleasures of love and of writing, but his performance has a strong, simple core of emotional truth, a softly shining tenderness, that makes his disillusioning a really heart-wrenching thing to watch.
Dillane is wonderful with words, but just as wonderful without them: He is often most arresting when reacting, and the most wounding image in the play is simply the vision of Henry sitting in darkness, a hand on the phone on his lap, aching and defeated by the searing suspicion of Annie’s infidelity.
Ehle’s performance as Annie is also intelligent, intensely felt and finely shaded. This character can seem to be on the wrong side of the moral battlefield at times, particularly since Henry alone is possessed of Stoppard’s soaring rhetorical gifts.
Ehle, who at times bears an intriguing resemblance to Meryl Streep (and also, less surprisingly, recalls her mother Rosemary Harris), turns her into a woman of real integrity, who strays despite her better instincts and is in some ways far more emotionally sophisticated than her husband.
When she says, “If I had an affair, it would be out of need,” it rings entirely and painfully true.
The supporting roles are also nicely served by this all-English cast, imported whole from the West End run. Nigel Lindsay is tough and funny as a tougher-than-usual Max, Annie’s abandoned first husband, and Woodward is amusingly peevish in the first act and later touchingly, maternally affectionate as Henry’s abandoned Charlotte.
Charlotte Parry is appealingly wry as Henry’s and Charlotte’s daughter, the wise-beyond-her-years Debbie. The second-act scene in which Charlotte and Debbie casually and tenderly dissect the flaws in Henry’s romanticism, while he defends it beautifully — to the death, as it happens — is marvelously played. Dillane signifies it subtly and touchingly as the turning point in Henry’s sentimental re-education.
The clever correspondences of the play’s structure — the motifs and arrangements that recur with new and different meanings — are not as strongly etched as they have been before. That’s intentional: Leveaux’s production makes a point of downplaying the play’s cleverness and emphasizing its emotional veracity, and the payoff is rewarding.
Stoppard’s intellectual sleight-of-hand in “The Real Thing” is certainly dazzling, but his sensitive evocation of the painful, hazy complexities of love is more lastingly impressive, and it shines powerfully in this production.