Review: The Real Thing

2014-10-09 20.06.11Tom Stoppard intimidates me. How am I supposed to write about someone so brilliant without sounding like an idiot? Exhibit A: I saw a play of his a few weeks ago and couldn’t bring myself to blog about it. Indian Ink isn’t even Mr. Stoppard’s most intellectual piece, but I felt unqualified to say anything notable about it beyond “I liked it but it was perhaps a bit long.” So to make up for my prior silence I’ll risk sounding like a dope and tell you my thoughts on the other Stoppard production currently in town: The Real Thing.

It was my first exposure to the hit 1980s play, a story that focuses on the relationship between witty playwright Henry (Ewan McGregor) and activist actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The original Broadway production sounds like a real knockout: Jeremy Irons as Henry, Glenn Close as Annie, and Christine Baranski as Henry’s salty first wife Charlotte. All won Tonys. (Frank Rich on the original production: “Any repeat viewings are likely to be as dazzling as the first.”) Then Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane won Tonys for the lead roles in the 2000 revival, too. (Brantley on the revival: “A rare thing even in what has been an exceptionally strong season for straight plays.”) Third time unlucky: I don’t think the production currently at the American Airlines theater is going to get nearly the same rapturous reception.

I did love parts of it: this is an intelligent play, crackling with wit and ideas right from the start (the show opens with a very clever play-within-a-play). Stoppard’s thoughts on love, writing, literature, marriage, activism, and fidelity are nearly always fascinating; it’s also more accessible (read: a bit less unrelentingly intellectual) than many of his other works such as Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. During the show I kept thinking of various friends who would like to see this play for all its interesting ideas. I also thought Cynthia Nixon gave a nice performance as Charlotte (interestingly enough, she was also in the original production as the daughter). Plus there’s the totally lovable soundtrack full of oldies: Henry loves old bubblegum pop songs (as do I).

But there’s plenty I didn’t care for. Starting with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor. Mr. McGregor’s Henry can fire off zingers with aplomb, but I simply wasn’t convinced he was anything more than a charismatic spokesman for some of Tom Stoppard’s musings. Ms. Gyllenhaal has an entirely different problem: first, she (along with many of the other cast members) seems to struggle with the English accent. More problematically, her stage presence lacks force. That’s partially because she seems to swallow some of her lines, but also because her Annie isn’t a believable activist, or a terribly compelling woman. I do wonder if I’d have connected a bit more with both leads in a smaller space. (I was in the rear mezzanine and had forgotten my binoculars.)

I think my biggest problem, though, is that this production just isn’t directed very well. While perusing the wikipedia entry on The Real Thing, I was surprised at how much I’d missed. For example, Maggie  — according to the stage directions in her first scene — is “very much like the woman Charlotte has ceased to be.” (She is? Nothing of the sort occurred to me when I was watching the show. To be fair, though, I frequently miss a lot of really obvious plot points when I’m watching theater.) The sets were pretty ugly; the ending lacked an emotional payoff. It just never really gelled for me.

In short, from what I understand The Real Thing was a revelation because it showed Stoppard has a heart as well as a brilliant intellect. But I don’t think this production really has enough of a heart of its own.

My Grade: C
Running Time:
2 hours, 20 minutes
Ticket Price:
$25 (Hiptix)
Worth it: Yes, because I’d never seen the play before
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: Violet

A few weeks ago a friend proclaimed Jeanine Tesori as the best composer currently writing for the musical theater. I was surprised to hear her say that so baldly (and I instantly started quibbling with her), though I don’t know why, because I tend to think her scores are delightful.

Beginning, of course, with Violet, which I saw in revival Sunday at the American Airlines theater. If you aren’t familiar with the story: a girl named Violet (Sutton Foster) goes on a bus trip from North Carolina to Tulsa, where she hopes a televangelist faith healer will heal her scarred face. It doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t. But what catapults this musical beyond its slight storyline is all that gorgeous music. I’ve listened to the cast recording many times since I originally bought it back in college, but hearing it live in the theater really brought home what an accomplished and impressive piece of work Violet is. Take “On My Way”, the first big number, which manages to transform a few people on a bus to a chorus of faith and hope and yearning. And “Bring Me to Light” — that rare closing number which surpasses every other number that has come before it. (And THAT is saying something!)

But enough about the score, right? We all know the score! How’s the production?

It’s excellent. It retains that Encores feel, though I suppose any show with an orchestra onstage has an Encores feel to me. I only watched a few episodes of Bunheads, but what I did see proved that Sutton Foster showed herself to have a great feel for snarky dialogue. Her Violet is sarcastic and sulky but likable and funny enough to explain why the two soldiers she meets seem so fond of her. (Her accent is also less irritatingly twangy than Lauren Ward’s on the original cd — I may buy this cast recording for that reason alone.) As usual, Violet’s scarred face is left completely to the imagination: No garish makeup at all. I would love to see an actress who’s not gorgeous take on the role, but I suppose that’s asking too much. Joshua Henry (Flick) continues to be terrific in just about everything he does — the audience was so excited by the end of his big number (“Let it Sing”) that the ovations started before he even stopped singing. And Colin Donnell (Monty) is also charming and talented as ever. And I’m not just saying that because I automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan. (Ok, I do automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan, but that doesn’t take away from his performance.)

But seriously. I can’t go on anymore without talking about the book. It just doesn’t really hold up. The characters aren’t fully realized, and worse, neither of Violet’s flirtations seem very plausible. So much so that the love scene at the end was completely out of left field. (And this coming from someone who knows the show and was expecting it!) You just don’t feel like Violet has really connected with anyone, except her late father (Alexander Gemignani — yet another strong cast member). I’d have been so much happier if this show were really about Violet’s personal journey, without the tacked-on romantic happy ending.

Of course, in that scenario I might not get to hear that gorgeous closing number, which atones for many of Violet’s sins. By the end of show, my thoughts amounted to “Wow, hmm, that doesn’t really make any sen— Oh who cares. This song is gorgeous.”