Spotlight: The Real Thing


I wish The Real Thing were Rock 'n' Roll. The latter is Tom Stoppard's newest play about love, politics, and, like, Western Civilization, and it's currently onstage at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The New York Times's Ben Brantley opened his recent review of the show with the line, "Now what was that old nonsense about Tom Stoppard as all head and no heart?" Old nonsense, indeed, as critics laid that same charge to rest when The Real Thing debuted in 1982. "Tom Stoppard's plays are clever, detached, sophisticated, scintillating; and that, it has sometimes been said, is what is wrong as well as right with them," Benedict Nightingale wrote in December of that year. "They aren't committed enough politically, and they lack emotional power." Benedict went on to argue that The Real Thing cashiered those claims, spinning out the story of a cerebral playwright who painfully discovers the real passion that's never existed in his clever dramas. The New York premiere of The Real Thing—starring Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Christine Baranski, Peter Gallagher (!), and a teenage Cynthia Nixon (!!)—was nothing less than an audience-pleaser. After months of sold-out houses, the producers raised top ticket prices to $37.50—the most ever charged on Broadway for a non-musical. Yet it's a complicated piece of business, loaded with buried secrets and plays-within-plays and ideological banter about the death of ideology. I've seen college summer stock actors do violence to Stoppard's script, and I've seen a 2000 Tony-winning revival in London and I can truthfully say that I enjoyed them both in their way. That's another way of hinting that it may not matter what Guthrie director Joe Dowling makes of the show. For all his obvious talents as an impresario, he's also a canny director, a theatrical craftsman who can manufacture laughs out of putty and turn on a strain of feeling as if he were working the light board. Both skills should come in handy as our leading man, Henry (Jay Goede), wrongs and is wronged in turn by the women in his life, flipping from coruscating wit to aching self-reflection. There's a bit of a sentimental streak hiding in this show—which may help explain why it opens annually in cities from Canberra to Syracuse—and I fear that Dowling may not be able to resist it. (His track record with Chekhov is not so good.) On the subject of Dowling's shrewdness, though, is it too much to hope that by producing this familiar classic, the director is setting the stage for a fresher bit of Stoppard genius?