The running gag in Woody Allen's Bananas is "There's something missing." "There's something missing and I don't know what is," says Louise Lasser every time she and Allen get together. You'll walk out of the Roundabout's production of The Real Thing saying much the same thing, probably along the lines of "There's something missing and I know exactly what it is." Namely: heart.
Because of that, the play’s cleverness feels like a series of lectures by the author rather than a series of scenes with characters. And having the cast do sing-alongs and humalongs of the pop songs that play every time a scene changes only adds to the distancing. It’s very Brechtian, but the last thing a Stoppard play needs is lehrstücke. Take it from someone whose default mode is clever: the only way clever works is if it is an impeccably tailored ensemble which is cut to specifically cover a very dramatic abnormality. In this production, the suits are empty.
This is especially true of the main character, Henry, played by Ewan McGregor. Because there’s no depth beneath them, McGregor's long speeches seem twice as long as they should. You want somebody to interrupt him, not because he's talking around something he can’t say, but because he's talking to no purpose, or talking because he's an annoying if clever chatterbox. You wonder what Maggie Gyllenhaal sees in him.
All of which would be forgiven if he actually got some laughs, but he doesn’t. This is true of everyone. This production is just not that funny. As a result, you have time to do the most dreaded thing an audience can do during a comedy: ask questions. Like: what is this political subplot doing here? How come the daughter of the divorced marriage never shows up until whatever she feels about the divorce is not an issue anymore? Will Maggie Gyllenhaal actually get an emotional reaction out of McGregor? Why can’t we see more of Josh Hamilton? And what pray tell is that accent Cynthia Nixon is doing?
And—the deadliest question of all—what is Stoppard actually trying to say? When you’ve got a long impassioned speech about the need for precision in writing which is spoken by a man who is passionately in love with pop songs from the Sixties, it’s clear that the implied contradiction is supposed to be at least a character revelation, if not a message. But by the end of this production, all I could think of was that I had just watched a long-winded response to the pithy Noel Coward line: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”
And it made me desperate to see Indian Ink again.