UPDATE October 31: Adds Barb Jungr’s show at end.
Tom Stoppard’s 1982 dazzler gets the matinee-comedy treatment from director-of-the-moment Sam Gold in a revival that leaves its attractive stars, both in their Broadway bows, deeply in the lurch. Glib and weirdly chilly for a literate comedy-drama about love, commitment, the sanctity of words and the enduring perfection of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the Roundabout Theatre Company production is as full of ideas as the play itself –- all of them wrong.
Gold’s first bad idea is to launch every scene with a sing-a-long involving most of the characters in this tale of two brittle marriages blown up when the wife in A+B and the husband in C+D fall in love. So the memorable opening scene, in which a man confronts his wife with what he believes is proof of her infidelity, comes only after that dopey chorus, when the others have cheerily drifted offstage, thus draining the moment of all tension and mystery.
The Real Thing then takes a hairpin turn as we figure out who’s who: Married actors Annie (Gyllenhaal) and Max (Josh Hamilton) are friends of playwright Henry (McGregor) and his actress wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon, returning to the play that helped make her a teenage star in the original Mike Nichols production). Soon after the opening scene, life imitates art as the lovers Henry and Annie leave their spouses and begin a new life together, each in the belief that having the real thing trumps any pain caused by the breakups.
None of this does justice to the inventive wit of Stoppard’s dialogue or the chewy subplots that shore up this oldest of human comedies: Annie’s championing of a loutish soldier imprisoned for taking part in an anti-war rally and her decision to accept a role that will take her to Glasgow for an extended run; Henry’s agonizing over his selections for a popular radio show in which celebrities explain the top eight songs they would choose if stranded on a desert island. What will his public think when he prefers the Ronettes singing “Da Doo Ron Ron” to Beethoven?
With McGregor and Gyllenhaal, the rhythms are off, as though they were speaking a foreign language. It’s generally odious to ask actors to measure up to an impossible standard, but in this case I can’t blame Gyllenhaal and McGregor, attractive and gifted thespians, for missing by a mile the heat generated by Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons in the original (or even by Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane in David Leveaux’s less successful 2000 revival). Their palpable fever compensated for what to my mind was and remains a schematic, somewhat smug entertainment.
But when all the delivery is as surface-glancing as those here, a greater idea seems to be at work. This production sacrifices the pleasant strengths of The Real Thing while exposing its flaws. The misfire is reflected in Candice Donnelly’s unflattering costumes and Robert Wierzel’s pallorish lighting. Worst of all is David Zinn’s sterile unit set, which defies intimacy almost as completely as the daunting acoustics of the American Airlines Theatre — which render this incoherent production inaudible as well.
By contrast, the Roundabout has done a spectacular job in presenting the New York premiere of another Stoppard play, the 1995 Indian Ink, at its off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. The show stars the radiant Romola Garai (Atonement and the upcoming Suffragette) and the equally enchanting Rosemary Harris as sisters: Flora, a poet living — or, rather, dying young — in 1930s India, and the younger Eleanor to whom Flora writes long, self-analyzing missives detailing her adventures. Like his chef d’oeuvre Arcadia, Indian Ink freewheels back and forth across the decades between Then (Flora’s Colonial-era world) and Now (the aged Eleanor’s London widowhood years later), as the letters inspire a kind of time-traveling reverie.
A complicated piece masterfully directed by Carey Perloff and augmented with a spectacular supporting cast, Indian Ink is one of the season’s treasures. You have a few more weeks to catch it — and really you must.
And another real thing: 59E59 Theaters is presenting the remarkable chanteuse Barb Jungr in Hard Rain, a thrilling cabaret evening of mostly early songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Ranging from Dylan’s “Chimes Of Freedom” to Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” the pairing is inspired and the performance, in addition to showing off a prodigious memory for lyrics, is flat-out awesome. Jungr is no ice queen; she suffuses each song with engaging physicality along with a gorgeous mezzo, and the show gets better and better as the 70 minutes fly by. “First We Take Manhattan” (Cohen) and “Masters Of War” (Dylan) are among the many knockouts. Also a must-see.