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Vinyl records, which cram the shelves of this revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play, are making a comeback. Their high audio quality, thrilling contrasts and purity of sound are appealing to boomers seeking retro comforts and millennials desperate for new thrills. Unfortunately, neither I, a member of the first group, nor my significant other, a member of the latter, thrilled much to the sounds and sights of Sam Gold’s all-too-casual production of Stoppard’s verbally precise drama for the Roundabout Theatre Company.
It stars Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal, each making a credible Broadway debut. Theatregoers my age remember Roger Rees and Jeremy Irons infusing the central role of Henry, a cerebral playwright, with biting wit. How could McGregor, an actor of surpassing warmth, embody someone whose cold carapace, when it cracks, fills the stage with wreckage? McGregor resorts to charm, which gives the production a solid centre while making us crave a wider emotional arc.
Gyllenhaal portrays Annie, an actress who at first is married to Max – whose very adept interpreter, Josh Hamilton, provides the production with the bracing irony it otherwise tends to lack. Gyllenhaal imparts a slinky seductiveness to Annie. It is not difficult to see why Henry would leave his first wife Charlotte for her. Easy, too, to understand why he puts up, under protest, with her attempts to encourage the playwriting of a political prisoner called Brodie.
The Real Thing curtsies to 17th-century drama (John Ford) and 20th-century theatre technique (Pirandello), but bows most deeply to the grand subject of 19th-century literature: adultery. Henry must have his heart broken so that he can understand the cruel nature of the pain that Annie, earlier, inflicted on Max.
That recognition would be easier to grasp if the production didn’t make us wait so long to feel the text’s intimacies. The set consists chiefly of a huge hulking wall, crammed with those wonderful records. (The Roundabout’s other, more satisfying Stoppard revival, of Indian Ink, is also hampered by a wall.) Only when Henry and his teenage daughter (a cracking Madeline Weinstein) sat on the floor together in act two did the vulnerabilities of love – the play’s chief subject – fully emerge. Cynthia Nixon, slightly miscast here as Charlotte, played the daughter in the original Broadway production.