Making one's Broadway debut is Everest enough, but Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal did it the hard way Oct. 30 at the American Airlines Theatre — in roles that have already won Tonys for not only Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close but also Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle — in a Tom Stoppard work that not only won the Tony for Best Play its first time around but also Best Revival its second, The Real Thing.
They've star-crossed paths fleetingly before in other mediums, but this Broadway baptism is their first sustained pairing. McGregor popped up for a two-day shoot in the "Nanny McPhee" sequel to play Gyllenhaal's returning-from-the-war husband — "but beautifully," she insisted. "He was the daddy we had been waiting for. If he'd been home, we would have been okay. He had lots of kids, and me, running to him."
Their other teaming, McGregor said, "was a pilot from Jonathan Franzen's novel, 'The Corrections,' which HBO wanted to do but decided not to. We did a few scenes there."
The third time seems to be the charm for them, although individually both have been inching toward Broadway for some time. Gyllenhaal did a couple of Chekhovs and a Kushner Off-Broadway, and McGregor racked up a trio of credits in London (something called Little Malcolm and His Struggles Against the Eunuchs, an Olivier-nominated and loudly cheered Sky Masterson and Iago to Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello.) The golden notion of bringing them together on the same marquee belongs to their director, Sam Gold. "Sometimes you get very lucky," Gold said. "I feel very lucky to get everybody in one room. They're all favorites of mine. Everyone up there is a seasoned theatre actor. You may know a couple of them more for film and television, but I didn't cast anybody who hadn't been on the boards many times and is a real pro. This play is so demanding technically that you couldn't do it if they weren't."
Stoppard's cerebral romance finds McGregor and Gyllenhaal well-matched as a playwright and an actress who shed their first spouses by Scene Three and opt for "the real thing," only to discover two and a half years down the road that the real thing is just as fraught with dangers, derailments and temptations as Marriage One.
The first scene in the play, enacted by the soon-to-be-cast-off mates (Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton) occurs and reoccurs in real-thing time: the cuckolded husband sitting in the living room, seething, waiting for the wife to return from her affair.
When the playwright assumes this seat of discomfort, he is at a loss for words — even words that mask his real feelings — and losing her to rivals becomes a reality.
McGregor, coolly confident throughout, seemed blissfully unfazed by the switch in medium: "I think there's too much emphasis on movie actors and stage actors. We're all just actors. The beautiful thing is being able to work in whatever we want.
"I think it's very good for us as actors to be on stage," he continued. "It teaches us our craft the way that making movies doesn't. Audiences let you know what works and doesn't work, and you can hone your performance because you're getting the feedback of the people watching it. With movies, you don't have that. You've got AN opinion: the director or whoever's behind the monitor, so I'd love to do more plays."
Following the show, McGregor breezed with assurance through the press gauntlet, which consumed the long corridor to the lobby at the American Airlines Theatre, signed a few token autographs to fans in front of the theatre and crossed the street for the after-party-in-progress raging at Liberty Diner at the Liberty Theatre.
Gyllenhaal was properly glammed up for the press — the diva wore Prada with provocative black-lace trim — and quickly confessed her cool was just acted. "I was terrified. I'm always terrified. But that's part of it, I think. You can't have the ecstasy without the terror, and I often feel a mix of both as I'm going through the night." Peter Sarsgaard, her sometimes co-star and full-time husband, arrived directly from work. "That's why I look like I do — I just came straight from set," he apologized, unnecessarily. He's starring in Jon Robin Baitz's eight-part miniseries, "The Slap." She gave him a warm, tight, loving embrace when the press let up a minute.
Gyllenhaal spends most of her evening battling torrents of gorgeous verbiage pouring out of McGregor, trying to find some semblance of feeling in the fallout.
"He's a force all the time with his words, but ultimately I think it's [my character] who schools him. I'm the one who's not actually being fed everything I need to be fed. I'm hungry, so I'm going to act up. I'll do everything I can to get his attention."
In the 30 years since Cynthia Nixon was in the original Broadway company of The Real Thing — at age 17, she played the playwright's prickly daughter — she has grown up into her own mother (whom Christine Baranski played with Tony-winning bristles and brilliance). "Some of my performance is stolen from Christine, but some of it is my own," Nixon said. "She came last week and saw the whole thing, and then I think she second-acted it tonight. She loves the play the way we all do."
She is one of two actresses in as many days to open in a role that Barankski originated. The other happens to be Tracee Chimo in Lips Together, Teeth Apart.
Hamilton, the other odd-spouse-out in the play, is dismissed from the proceedings quite early in the evening and spends his time backstage "catching up on my reading. I have two kids at home — 7 and 2 — so I don't get much reading done there."
He was helpful in solving two mysteries connected with this production. One: What sort of direction was given to the play's four principals for the poster art where they all seem to be in the deep throes of disco? "That ad was inspired by a Robert Longo painting from the '80s. The photographer just put on some great '80s dance music, and we just jumped and jerked around until he got the shot that he wanted." Two, and more importantly, what happened to "I'm a Believer" by The Monkees which brings the play to a hopeful, but melancholy, close? "They changed the last song. It's even 'I'm a Believer' in the script, but, from what I understand, Neil Diamond who wrote the song is developing a show of his own based on his songs."
Director Gold seconded that: "Neil Diamond did not give us the rights because, I believe, he is doing something with his music that he wanted to save it for."
Tony-winning Irons, who had the luxury of that graceful ending in the first Broadway production, was once asked whether or not he was planning to see Stephen Dillane's equally honored portrayal in the Broadway revival version. "No, I don't think so," he said rather sweetly. "It's a little like being asked to your ex-wife's wedding. You wish her all the best, but you'd just rather not, thank you very much."
Nevertheless, there was an inordinate number of Real Thing alums among the first-nighters, happy to return for seconds or thirds and willing to share nice memories.
Kenneth Welsh, who lost Glenn Close to Irons in that version, came in from Toronto, where he does most of his acting these days. The original Johnny to Kathy Bates' Frankie in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune remembered how quickly the play caught fire in New York. "We had no idea," he said. "We played in Boston, and it went well, then we came back here, and the audiences went crazy about it."
Welsh's replacement, Simon Jones, recalled taking over the role the night after the Tonys and his character seemed to be the only one in the show that didn't net a Tony. Jones just returned from London where he and Angela Lansbury reprised their roles in the Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit. Nov. 15, they go back into rehearsal for a national tour that will kick off Dec. 8 at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles.
The show's success was certainly not lost on Peter Gallagher, another of Iron's romantic rivals. "It was the first big hit I'd ever been in on Broadway," he said. "I have so many pleasant memories of that, working with Tom Stoppard and Mike Nichols — the two smartest men I'd ever met. It was a thrilling experience." (Gallagher will stick around the American Airlines Theatre after the run of this Real Thing to star in On the Twentieth Century, which starts previewing in February.)
Henry the first — the first person to play the playwright in London two years before the Broadway production — was also in attendance. "It's the greatest play written about love in the 20th century," Roger Rees declared flat-out, "And Henry is one of the truly great roles. Ewan, especially, is exactly right for it. Such a wonderful actor!"
Warm memories suddenly started flooding back for the erstwhile Nicholas Nickleby: "Felicity Kendal, the great English actress, and Tom Stoppard, and Peter Wood, who directed Laurence Olivier for so many years — just being in that rehearsal room with those people for a month changed my life and made me a proper actor."
Among the couples in attendance: Louis Zorich and Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis; Jeremey Shamos and Marin Hinkle (both of "Nurse Jackie" now); Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jamie deRoy; Margaret Colin and actor-son Sam Deas; Rosie O'Donnell and wife Michelle Rounds; Laura Osnes and Nathan Johnson; Steven Pasquale and Mary Beth Peil; J. Smith-Cameron and Kenneth Lonergan; Derek McLane and Lia Vollack.
Warren Leight, author of the Tony-winning Best Play of 1998 (Side Man) and now showrunner for "Law & Order: Special Victims Units," is "leaning heavily on our theatre brethren: Jefferson Mays was brought in to be the new medical examiner, Lisa Kron was just in as a judge and Peter Gallagher's the new deputy chief of SVU."
Also: Wesley Taylor (turning Cabaret emcee in the spring for Virginia's Signature Theatre); Jessica Hecht; Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter; Gordon Glick; composer Charles Strouse (bracing for the modern-day, African-American Annie movie); playwright J.T. Rogers ("Play and TV show in the works. Details when I see you next"); Sally Murphy; director Sheryl Kaller; Sherie Rene Scott and Rachel York.
Stoppard, with wife Sabrina Guinness, forged gamely through the roiling crowd at Liberty Diner to compliment Alex Breaux on his performance of the play's dimmest bulb, a political martyr who fancies himself a playwright. The actor almost levitated.