"All you do is put words together," says Annie, in a pique, to her beloved husband, Henry, a playwright. "It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer," Henry observes. Tom Stoppard is, of course, blessed with the gift, and his latest comedy, "The Real Thing," which came to the Plymouth last evening, is an exhilarating piece of theater.
I suppose you could call it a romantic comedy, as it has widely been heralded. And, indeed, it is ostensibly all about love. But Stoppard, like Shaw before him, has far too much fun dazzling us with his verbal juggling to allow sentiment to put him off his stride more than fractionally.
Henry, played by Jeremy Irons with the flair of a young Olivier, adores and is adored by the actress Annie, played with sparkle by Glenn Close, when we first meet them. At the time, they're both married to others; he to Charlotte, also an actress (Christine Baranski), and she to Max, an actor. But they soon leave their mates for "the real thing" and, obviously having gone through the formalities in short order, are married and living together for the rest of the play, two years and some minor complications having come along between Acts One and Two.
The play is almost casually, sometimes unsettlingly, put together. For openers, there's a bitter scene in which a husband, lounging in his robe at home, excoriates his returning wife for her infidelity. But it turns out to be a scene (played by Baranski and Kenneth Welsh) from Henry's current play, evidently a comedy of ill manners.
And once the "real thing" is a fait accompli, 20 minutes or so into the evening, what can endanger it? Well, two figures: one, a Marchbanks-like Scottish actor with whom a Candida-like Annie feels an attachment while they're playing Jacobean melodrama in Glasgow, and a radical whose cause Annie takes up and who, appearing late in the play, also turns out to be a Shavian character, a roughneck with a paradoxical view of his predicament. Even Henry's (and Charlotte's) 16-year-old daughter, Debbie (Cynthia Nixon), is an incipient Shavian heroine with her outlook on "free love," a term Henry twists and turns while correcting Debbie's grammar. As the young actor Billy, Peter Gallagher gives another of his skillful and vibrant performances. Vyto Ruginis is adequate as the jailed, then released, radical named Brodie.
In the course of this stupendously resourceful and almost unfailingly amusing cascade of words (though words are his chief love, Henry does corrupt his talent in the name of corporeal love late in the play), Stoppard juggles scenes as well as phrases. Designer Tony Walton has been uncannily resourceful in keeping up with him, constructing the major sets on the bias and making them appear and disappear like magic.
In addition to the Shavian echoes, there are Cowardian ones, including a cleverly aborted joke about Norfolk. And while Stoppard can tickle us at will with a funny line (Henry, who hates "music" but loves the "noise" of rock groups, mourns Buddy Holly's early death in a plane accident, and considers how much the history of music would have been altered had Beethoven died similarly, adding, "But, then, so would the history of aviation"), he can also make us laugh with such a simple statement as Henry's unenthusiastic identification of a recording as "one of the Italian operas."
Mike Nichols has staged the evening impeccably, and I came away from it with two thoughts: I neither cared nor understood a great deal about the love-lives being tossed about, but that hardly mattered in the freshest of brilliant language and ideas, and it seemed crystal clear that in Jeremy Irons the Broadway theater has found, at least for the time being, a matinee idol - the real thing.
The real turtle soup...or merely the mock? Relax. Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater, is, indeed, the real thing. Perhaps the realest thing the indefatigably brilliant Stoppard has ever given us.
With its staging by Mike Nichols and its cast led by a dazzling Jeremy Irons, it brightens the lights on Broadway and lightens the spirits of men. It is measurably funny, immeasurably clever and unexpectedly moving - a house of cards with real moving men, a play on plays with non-playing players. And - it goes with saying - a terrific night out, gusty and cheerfully intellectual.
There is a playwright, Henry. He has written a play about adultery - and we see the first scene of the play, before we see Henry. Because the first scene of Henry's play is the first scene of Stoppard's play.
It is a clever first scene...but not quite clever enough, because it doesn't really seem like the real thing. Of course - for this is its real cleverness - it is not meant to, and soon we are embarked on Stoppard's proper play.
How art trifles with reality, particularly in matters of the heart! Hamlet understood that when he looked at the ranting Player King and wondered what he was to Hecuba (or Hecuba to him) that he should weep so copiously for her demise. It was, after all, only a bloody play.
And what a nice distinction there is between the things that happen to us here in reality - outside limitless limits of our imaginations - and what we can fantasize even, were we to be a playwright, to the point of a play.
Henry is just such a man, just such a playwright. He is a romantic and deplores a world where there are "no commitments, only bargains." But then he commits adultery...and has adultery committed on him; in the reality of Stoppard's play, not the fancy of his own. And he suffers - much to our unfeeling enjoyment.
Stoppard is such a brilliant playwright, so infernally clever. A simple aphorism such as "There is something scary about stupidity made coherent" sizzles with truth. But Stoppard is not just a wordsmith or a jokemaster - he writes, particularly here, from the heart with Mozartian grace.
Stoppard weighs the value of words on a human scale. He that has discovered as a man, "having all the words is not what life is about," and as a playwright he can make a shrewd contrast between "a sense of humor" and what he calls "a joke reflex." Stoppard is here playing with all his marbles, and writing flawlessly.
Is the play itself flawless? Well, I doubt whether Stoppard's own two favorite critics in his The Real Inspector Hound, Moon and Birdboot, would find its structure perfect. There is a subplot about an imprisoned activist-pacifist soldier that doesn't quite fit in. Even though it is there for the tidiness of the plot and to shape up the play's ending.
Here is a problem. Stoppard has perhaps stated the romantic quandary without offering a satisfactory solution for these contemporary private versions of Noel Coward's Elyot and Amanda. Yet the quandary is stated so well, so joyously, so thoughtfully, that only a fool would seriously carp at such real pleasures.
In London, at the play's premiere last year, the staging was in the hands of that stalwart Stoppard veteran Peter Wood, who did an excellent job. On Broadway Mike Nichols has taken over and, surprisingly perhaps, put the final cherry on the cake, added the final glaze to the icing.
But much more important than Nichols' injection of slick, has been his contrary-wise but wonderful transfusion of heart. Jeremy Irons' playwright is made into a figure that is practically tragic in its comedy. It is a beautiful performance infused by sure-thoughted direction.
Nichols shows his skills in many ways - the different style employed for the play's first scene, something that only dawns on you halfway through the second.
Then in tiny wordless touches Nichols (and Stoppard) demonstrate their mastery. Scene: actress-mistress is reading Strindberg to demanding playwright-lover. The text sounds unusually turgid - unobtrusively the playwright glances at the name of the translator, his professionalism riled. (One tiny point botched: no nut serves Dom Perignon in "buck-fizzes").
The new scenery by Tony Walton - again note the stylistic difference between the first scene and the rest - is exquisitely Chelsea-elegant-Bohemian, while the costumes by Anthea Sylbert could have come from next month's English Vogue.
And the acting has exactly the one quality that Nichols always strives for, at whatever the labor: spontaneity. Irons, Glenn Close and their companions seem to be making up Stoppard as they go along.
Irons has comparatively little stage experience. But some years ago in London, when I saw him as a replacement for Alan Howard in Wild Oats at the RSC, I knew that this unknown was going to be one of the actors of his generation. And probably so did everyone else.
In The Real Thing he masks his virtuosity with beguiling ease, moves with the naturalness of an animal, and talks more like a friend than an actor. It is a perfectly naturalistic performance, but given with the moral truth of realism.
No one else in the play is in Irons' league - although the entire cast covers this up magnificently. Miss Close, wise and bittersweet, is as adorable as the second wife as the flightily brash Christine Baranski is as the first. The men (Kenneth Welsh as wronged husband, Peter Gallagher as a young stud, Vyto Ruginis as an equally young jerk) and Cynthia Nixon as sex-brat daughter, are all exemplary.
And the play, with Nichols in control and Irons as his co-pilot, takes off...and you wish it need never come down. Do not miss The Real Thing on any account; you never know when the real thing will come around again.
Henry, the hero of Tom Stoppard's ''Real Thing,'' is an English playwright of unbeatable intellectual prowess. He knows how to make words ''go on replicating themselves like a spiral of DNA'' and how to ad lib a brilliant rejoinder to any question. Both in life and in the theater, he can always get the last word and the smartest laugh. But there's one question Henry can't so easily answer or write about or joke away: What is this thing called love?
In ''The Real Thing,'' we watch Henry (Jeremy Irons) find the answer - and we watch Mr. Stoppard do so too. In the play at the Plymouth, the author of such high-flying neo-Shavian farces as ''Jumpers'' and ''Travesties'' turns his attention to private passion - and he does so without mortgaging an intellect that has few equals in the contemporary theater. The Broadway version of ''The Real Thing'' - a substantial revision of the original London production - is not only Mr. Stoppard's most moving play, but also the most bracing play that anyone has written about love and marriage in years.
Yet Mr. Stoppard, being Mr. Stoppard, hasn't settled only for that high achievement. If ''The Real Thing'' is about love, it is also about the literary coordinates of love. The story of Henry's awakening to passion is always linked to the story of how he learns to reconcile those messy emotions with his austere, high-minded credo of playwriting. ''The Real Thing'' is as much about how a writer learns to write ''The Real Thing'' as about how he learns to experience the real thing.
There is much more going on as well - debates about the moral imperatives (if any) of such other abstract ''things'' as politics and justice, running jokes that summersault into each other, Pirandellian theater games that illuminate the play's theme even as they give the evening its shape. ''The Real Thing'' is so densely and entertainingly packed with wit, ideas and feelings that one visit just won't do. Given the sublime cast led by Mr. Irons and Glenn Close - and the bravura force of Mike Nichols's direction - any repeat viewings are likely to be as dazzling as the first.
''The Real Thing'' begins with what might almost be a Nichols-and-May spoof of Noel Coward. A terribly elegant Englishman, wearing a silk smoking robe, sits in a toney drawing room, waiting for his wife to return from a business trip. When the wife enters, the husband confronts her with evidence of adultery. But even as the couple surveys the ruins of their marriage, the badinage keeps flying. The husband even sings a Gershwin phrase from ''Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.''
This opening sketch, it soon turns out, is not ''The Real Thing,'' but a play-within-the-play - a scene from Henry's latest comedy, ''House of Cards.'' In real life, the leading lady, Charlotte (Christine Baranski), is Henry's wife, while her onstage husband, Max (Kenneth Welsh), is married to another actress, Annie (Miss Close). As we meet these two couples at brunch on the play's day off, we learn that a real adulterous relationship is afoot - between Henry and Annie. But when Annie confesses her betrayal to Max at home a few scenes later, the actor doesn't behave at all as he does on stage in Henry's play. Now in a tattered cloth robe, Max has no quip to paper over his grief: he collapses like a house of cards into miserable sobs.
From that point on, Mr. Stoppard concentrates on the new marriage that Henry and Annie build after they discard Charlotte and Max. For the new marriage to work, however, Henry must change - and the psychological distance he must travel is the same that separates the synthetic Max he presents in ''House of Cards'' from the agonized Max presented by Mr. Stoppard. Though Henry may describe ''House of Cards'' as a play about a man who achieves ''self-knowledge through pain,'' his 17-year-old daughter correctly dismisses it as fluff. ''The Real Thing'' is essentially the play Henry really meant to write - and he finds the self-knowledge needed to write it, as well as to give himself in love, only after Annie inflicts the same pain on him that she inflicted on Max.
But if Annie's new infidelity is the plot mechanism by which Mr. Stoppard brings his cerebral hero in touch with his heart, it's far from the sum of the author's method. As Henry sorts out his own understanding of what love is, or should be, Mr. Stoppard dexterously quotes or alludes to other playwrights' views - from the 17th-century John Ford to Strindberg, Wilde and Coward. As he does, he knocks down Henry's highbrow argument that love is an ''unliterary'' subject - ''happiness expressed in banality and lust'' - that's best left to the lowbrow pop singers (The Righteous Brothers, Herman's Hermits) that Henry guiltily reveres.
And as the protagonist grows as a man, so ''The Real Thing'' expands as a play. Early on, it's fast and funny, like Henry's comedy. According to Charlotte, the difference between a play like ''House of Cards'' and real life is that there's more thinking time between the lines in real life. But Henry's life, as Mr. Stoppard first reveals it, is just like his play: Henry is a ''reflex joke machine'' who finishes Annie's sentences for fear that any thinking time will make love ''go wrong, change, spoil.''
Once Henry begins to mature, Mr. Stoppard's writing flowers until it's more spiritually akin to Ford's open-throated blank verse than the brittle, sublimating cadences of ''House of Cards.'' Only then can Henry and Annie face each other with utter nakedness. Only then can Henry find the language that celebrates love as the bond between two people who fully know each other's private selves, no matter what other identities they present to the world.
Mr. Stoppard's championing of a man's private soul over his public posture does, alas, lead ''The Real Thing'' into one cul-de-sac. Throughout the play, Henry's ideals about art and language are set against those of a fledgling playwright - a militant anti-nuclear demonstrator named Brodie who writes poorly, but, unlike Henry, champions a social cause. Whatever the relative merits of polemical playwrights versus ''pure'' writers, no light is shed here. By painting Brodie as a moral fraud and loutish philistine, Mr. Stoppard lets Henry demolish him without contest - and reduces a complex debate to a smug, loaded dialectic.
In part because Annie is a radical-chic Brodie booster, she is not an equal with Henry in their love match. Charlotte, the hero's sardonic, tough- minded first wife, is at times more likable than her successor - which may not have been Mr. Stoppard's intention. Otherwise, the script changes since London (notably in Act II) tighten and crystallize a play left incompletely fulfilled in the West End.
Mr. Nichols's all-new staging sews up the rest. With the aid of the inspired set designer Tony Walton, the director prevents the frequent, potentially cumbersome scene shifts from breaking the production's pace; Tharon Musser's poetic lighting and Anthea Sylbert's delicate, ever-changing costume modulations enhance the illusion of cinematic speed and style. Every supporting role is perfectly done - from Miss Baranski and Mr. Welsh as the rejected spouses to the one-scene contributions of Cynthia Nixon (as Henry's rebellious daughter) and Vyto Ruginis (Brodie). In the smallish part of a young actor, the charismatic Peter Gallagher once again reveals an outsized talent that wins over an audience in a flash.
If Annie can be a thankless role, the frizzily red-headed Miss Close concedes nothing: she's warm and persuasive even when her character's convictions and behavior are dubious. More important, she joins with her co-star to give the play its essential sexual charge. Mr. Irons, meanwhile, has never been better: he captures Henry's magnetic public charm, then goes on to reveal the suffering and longing within.
This actor's first tour de force arrives early in Act II - when he delivers a glorious speech likening the sacred power of a writer's words to convey ideas to a cricket bat propelling a ball. But Mr. Irons's Henry goes further later on, after love has hit hard and language has begun to fail him entirely. Collapsing in his chair under the weight of Annie's betrayal, the author of the glib ''House of Cards'' is finally left alone with only a primal, anguished cry - ''Please, please, please don't! '' - as a weapon against pain. Spare and ''unliterary'' as Henry's words have at last become, Mr. Stoppard, through his art, has made them sacred. He and Mr. Irons, as if wielding cricket bats, land every one of them right where it hurts.