That sly puss, Sir Tom Stoppard, playfully leads with a faux thing in The Real Thing, his elegant 1984 opus now at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, by starting with a play-within-a-play, House of Cards, which records — in civil, dulcet tones — the collapse of the marriage of Max (Josh Hamilton) and Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon).
That's how they do it on stage, all very Noel Cowardish, but, on solid terra firma, it's another story. It's angst, tears and messy emotions when Max and Charlotte really are dumped by their cheating other-halves. Henry (Ewan McGregor), who wrote the play for Charlotte, finds a new muse: Max's actress-wife, Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Henry and Annie are the headstrong romantics we're asked to root for here, both perfectly happy to swap lukewarm love for the real thing. But, turnabout being fair play, what happens if this real thing goes the way of all flesh — if Annie takes a shine to a young co-star (Ronan Raftery)? Even Henry, a man who has precisely picked words for all occasions, can only muster, "Oh, please, please, please, please, don't."
The Real Thing is, to thoroughly mix metaphors, a neck-and-neck race between head and heart — Stoppard at his most accessible. His alter-ego is a cerebral acrobat doing verbal gymnastics in a desperate attempt to find some kind of feeling in his words. McGregor admits he's having a field day with this guy: "It's fun to play someone who is such a wordsmith, who takes such enjoyment in how he speaks — and someone who also is a bit of a dick and has a long way to fall. Then the exploration of this real love — which is what the play's all about — is satisfying beyond belief every night."
"The play itself is on a nice edge," chimes in Gyllenhaal, who's the heart of the matter. "On one side is the intellect and the speed and the buzzing nature of the play. Then, along with that, is Annie, this beating heart. She is someone who wears her heart on her sleeve and, at the same time, is able to live in this intellectual world."
When we meet these two characters, they're well on their way to shedding their first spouses. "I feel I've already left Max in the beginning," admits Gyllenhaal. "Max is sorta incidental. It's sad, but I say that all the way through the first act, and it's true." The marriage-go-round has already started for Henry as well. "For me, I've already left Charlotte — only I've not left her, if you know what I mean," McGregor points out.
"That said, it's nice to have that scene with the divorced couple coming back because of their child. There's something familiar in the writing of it — for Henry, I think. He tells Charlotte off about her talking. I'm sure that's something that he would have said to her a million times when they were married. 'You're going off again. Stop. Stop talking all the time' — because he is the one who wants to do all the talking."
Stoppard himself came over from London to watch director Sam Gold put Henry and Annie back together again. "He was in our rehearsal room over a week, which was a great honor," says McGregor, "like having Shakespeare see us rehearse a play of his. He was extraordinarily humble. He said to us, 'Just because I wrote this, I don't have any insight or secret knowledge of how it should be done. You should know that.'
"He answered questions that were put to him, but, after that, all of his notes came through Sam. He never spoke to us directly after that. He's really lovely. I really like him. There's something extraordinary about somebody like that. You don't meet many people like that any more, and I just took great pleasure listening to him.
"The best help for Henry, really, was watching him answer a question. He would be asked something — I don't really do it on stage because I'm me, but he'd sit and wait to construct his answer in his mind. You can see words almost formulating before he says them, then you could see him go, "Right, that's it,' and then finally he will tell you what the answer is, and out comes this stream of the most beautiful words." Gyllenhaal was similarly charmed. "I loved having him there. I have been a fan of his in a knee-jerk kind of way. I saw Arcadia in London when I was 15, and I read The Real Thing in college in this senior seminar when I was 17. They blew my mind."
It's the Broadway bow for both, and they were wise and fearless to hold out for The Real Thing — wise because of the waves of affection pouring over the footlights to their characters, fearless because these roles have always won Tonys (for Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in 1984, and for Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle in 2000).
"It's been a process to get there, as you might imagine," McGregor concedes, "but it becomes more and more comfortable as the house becomes more and more ours."