Currently in previews at the American Airlines Theater, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing has all the right elements: an all star cast, a hip set, a great soundtrack featuring 60s pop and operatic favorites, but it lacks one crucial element - an emotional core.
Ewan McGregor plays Henry, a charming yet unhappily married playwright, who casts his wife Charlotte, (Cynthia Nixon), as the star of his newest work. In the opening scene of the play, which we learn is really Henry's play, Max (Josh Hamilton), builds a house of cards that promptly collapse when his wife slams the door, allegedly returning from a business trip in Switzerland. But wait, she never brought her passport! Such marital deceptions permeate Henry's real life when he begins an affair with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Max's offstage wife. Will theirs be true love or will life imitate art as it so often does?
In a play that explores the sanctity of the written word and the nature of fidelity, we have a lot of fun watching these couples flirt, banter and reconcile, yet there's an absence of true emotion that left me feeling lighter than I should have in a play about jealousy, knowledge and the preservation of one's self in a marriage.
The flat sexual chemistry between McGregor and Gyllenhaal partly accounts for this disconnect. They tease and edge each other on, but it feels more like camaraderie than a passionate love affair, making the play's eventual focus, Annie's possible infidelity feel less consequential than it should. The one sign of raw emotion comes early on, when Annie tells her first husband, Max, that she is leaving him for Henry. He grabs on to her in a desperate embrace and doesn't let go.
There are several subplots, one involving Henry and Charlotte's free-loving, free-thinking daughter, another about an imprisoned soldier who Annie meets on a train and later helps to produce a political play, much to Henry's dismay. Smugly defending his own genius while dismissing the idea that a cause equates with real art, Henry exclaims: "He can't write!"
Still, the play is very entertaining, especially McGregor, who rhapsodizes with so much wit and joy it is impossible not to root for him. It helps that his lines get the biggest laughs, such as his wry comparison of Beethoven and Buddy Holly. "I mean, if Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at twenty-two, the history of music would have been very different. As would the history of aviation, of course," Henry muses.
If anyone flounders here it's Cynthia Nixon, trying a little too hard to be nonchalant and clever in her contempt of true love. Nixon originally played the minor role of Henry and Charlotte's daughter in the play's 1984 production, but she doesn't quite fit as the strong-minded Charlotte. It doesn't help that her ill fitted wardrobe is incredibly distracting; in one scene, she towel dries her hair so awkwardly it took immense willpower not to run over and hand her a comb.
Still, The Real Thing has plenty to offer. The sharp dialogue, the comedic delivery and energy of the actors onstage and the philosophical questions explored about the nature of art and relationships are more than you can ask from a night on Broadway. See it, just don't expect to get too many real answers about that crazy little thing we call love.