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Keeping It Real

Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater in New York

The Real Thing is generally regarded as the most accessible of Tom Stoppard’s plays. It isn’t playing with big ideas and historical or political themes. It’s about people: principally, marriage and infidelity. And love. That’s what the “real thing” of the title refers to, and it’s the something that the main character, Henry, can’t figure out how to write about, and only very belatedly and with some surprise learns he can really feel.

Stoppard’s earlier work was up-front about the fact that it was playing with theatrical convention both in language and structure. No one would confuse Travesties or The Real Inspector Hound or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for anything resembling reality. They both depict and provoke real emotion, but they are self-consciously artificial. Later works, like Arcadia or the Coast of Utopia plays – or Indian Ink, which the Roundabout mounted earlier this year – are conscious constructs, but not self-conscious ones. That is to say: the worlds we’re observing exist, that these are plays about a reality that is “out there.”

The Real Thing, in this scheme, is a bit of a hinge, and my impression prior to seeing it was that it fell definitively on the “mature” side of the line. But having now actually seen a production (the current revival also at the Roundabout; they’re having a very Stoppard year over there), I’m mulling over how different it really is from the earlier works of Stoppard’s oeuvre. To what degree it is depicting something resembling reality. To what degree it’s actually trying to.

Sam Gold’s production struck me as resting somewhere on the fence on that question. The production and costume design are chock-a-block of period details – mostly very unattractive ones – but the structure of the stage itself is very abstract, with soaringly high walls and a wide, narrow strip of a stage that strings the action out like beads on an abacus rod. I felt sometimes like I was looking at the set of a Pinter play. The acting, meanwhile, though punctuated by expressionist touches such as having the actors, out of character, singing pop songs at the top of each act, felt like it was generally intended to be naturalistic. And that only highlighted the degree to which the dialogue was not naturalistic, but highly self-conscious.

This is a play that centers on a playwright – Henry (Ewan McGregor) – and a trio of actors – Henry’s wife, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), and another couple, Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Max (Josh Hamilton). Henry isn’t just any playwright, but the kind of playwright who delights in wit – a man whose political and cultural prejudices mark him as Stoppard’s author surrogate, but who can also be read, though the character himself would probably cringe at the comparison, as the lineal descendant of Noël Coward. The play opens with a scene from one of Henry’s plays – House of Cards, which unfortunately doesn’t involve floridly murderous politicians but an architect with a (possibly) unfaithful wife. The writing in the play-within-a-play isn’t nearly as good as the writing in the larger drama – it’s more obviously stagy – but it’s really just a matter of degree. Henry, when he talks, sounds very much like one of his male protagonists.

And much of the action of the play – through the recombination of the central couples (we learn early on that Henry and Annie are having an affair) and that new pairing’s subsequent marital trajectory – is driven by Henry’s attempts to control his life by writing it. And, consequently, the female characters’ – his two love interest’s and his daughter’s (Madeleine Weinstein) – attempts to discover what kind of play they are in, and play their parts correctly.

Charlotte is all barbed wit from the moment we meet her, but later in the play, she explains that this persona grew as a response to her recognition of her husband’s emotional detachment. She assumed that he was fooling around and that he expected her to do the same, that their marriage was not a burning romance but a mutually-agreeable arrangement for intellectually and emotionally emancipated adults. And so she became a kind of curdled Coward character.

Annie, when we meet her, is playing a woman overcome by desire, some combination of chemistry and admiration. But not long after she leaves her husband for Henry, she feels the same sense of distance from him, of not really caring. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her, or even that he isn’t in love with her. He’s just too secure in his position, too impregnable in his fortress of words. And so, a couple of years later, she takes up with a younger actor – Billy (Ronan Raftery) – not because she doesn’t love Henry anymore, but because she’s drawn to the fierceness of Billy’s desire, to his need, to the opportunity to write a story herself. And because she wants Henry to feel pain.

Which he does. His authorial indifference is finally pierced – and he finds himself playing an unexpected role, the “civilized cuckold” who knows his wife has another lover, and tolerates it, because he knows she needs the other man but she isn’t going to leave her husband for him. It’s a comical part as old a theater itself, but it’s not one he would have written for himself. But then, he’s no longer playing the writer of his own life. He’s just a writer living a life, a life in which he’s playing the part he’s given.

I saw all of this, but I didn’t feel it the way I should, and I concluded, on reflection, that one reason I didn’t was that the production didn’t let us know when the characters were speaking in their self-created, stylized voices – when they were playing parts – and when we saw them struggling to play those parts, and thereby saw a glimpse of the “real thing” underneath. That the production was to convinced what we were seeing was real people, and not the personae that they had adopted for the scenes that they were in.

I don’t think we’re supposed to see more than a glimpse of those real people. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to take these people’s self-presentation as an unmediated expression of their inner selves, except for maybe at one critical point for each character. In the production now running in my mind’s eye, what we’re supposed to see are the creaking mechanisms of self-creation and self-presentation. The masks never fully come off, but we are supposed to see that they are masks, and that they don’t quite fit.

I think, in other words, that The Real Thing should be directed as if it had more affinity for the works that came before it. As if the writing of this play were an attempt, by Stoppard, not to escape the strictures of his prior work, but to transcend them. To do the same kind of post-modern, meta-theatrical thing he had been doing, but this time in a world we might take for real, and with people of whom there is some hope they might be.

That’s not this production. But if seeing it led my thinking down this path, that in itself justifies the ticket price for me.

The Real Thing plays at the American Airlines Theater through January 4th.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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