Getting Out of the Way of `The Real Thing'

from the New York Times

April 16, 2000

By Matt Wolf

Nigel Lindsay, Jennifer Ehle, Stephen Dillane and 
Sarah Woodward in The Real Thing 
at the Ethel Barrymore Theater   photo by Sara Krulwich
Nigel Lindsay, Jennifer Ehle, Stephen Dillane and Sarah Woodward in The Real Thing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater
photo by Sara Krulwich

London - There has been no shortage of bravura performers exported from London to Broadway over the years who dazzle with their extroversion and breadth and an expansiveness that seems to reach toward the very last row.

One thinks of ZoŽ Wanamaker as Sophocles' Electra and her uncontainable grief spilling over into the auditorium last season, or of Janet McTeer's Nora, in A Doll's House several years before that, slamming the door on Torvald, but not before her feverish energy seemed capable of igniting all of Norway.

Thinking back still further, one can place in the same category the New York stage debut of Jeremy Irons as Henry, the lovesick dramatist at the bruised heart of The Real Thing. As he cried out "please, please, please don't!" toward the climax of the second act, when the cuckolded playwright experiences for the first time the weight of feelings beyond words, Mr. Irons pierced the air with the very heartache that was stabbing at him. The performance won him the 1984 Tony Award for best actor, while Tom Stoppard's drama won four additional awards, including best play.

The Real Thing is back on Broadway this season, opening tomorrow at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in an acclaimed revival that originated last summer at the Donmar Warehouse here and that later transferred to a commercial run in the West End.

As in London, Stephen Dillane plays Henry, the carefully reined-in author of a drama about adultery called "House of Cards." In the course of the play (not the play within the play), Henry's own deliberately constructed carapace against emotion cracks apart. Joining Mr. Dillane in her own Broadway debut is Jennifer Ehle as Annie, the actress who becomes the playwright's second wife and who teaches him a lesson or two about pain. In 1984, Glenn Close won the first of her three Tony Awards for the role.

But expecting a simple repeat of the affect of that earlier production would be a mistake. The tone of the current Real Thing is set by its much-lauded leading man, Mr. Dillane. While some Britons on Broadway may act with a capital A, the wiry, tousle-haired Mr. Dillane is too much the purist for that. By contrast, in playing Henry, he simply, woundingly is.

I'm more interested in getting out of the way of the story," Mr. Dillane said over fish stew in London one wintry lunchtime. It was shortly before transplanting himself to New York with his partner, Naomi Wirthner, an actress, and their two young sons, ages 8 and nearly 2. "It's important not to let the audience ever feel conscious of somebody doing anything. What interests me is the transformative power of the writing rather than the skill of the actors."

That is not to say that Mr. Dillane disappears onstage. You don't play Hamlet eight times a week on the West End for the director Peter Hall, as this actor did over the course of six months in 1994 ("Tired isn't the word"), without possessing an innate charisma that perhaps you are loath to identify in yourself.

As Vanya at the Young Vic in 1998, Mr. Dillane found rancor and tenderness in a potentially languid play: Chekhov has rarely seemed so animated. And yet, among all his theater work -- London runs in Dancing at Lughnasa, Hurlyburly and Angels in America included -- his performance in The Real Thing has been the one to attract awards. As the linguistically deft wordsmith who is emotionally blindsided by his more impulsive wife, Mr. Dillane won The Evening Standard drama award for best actor, followed by nominations for an Olivier and a London Critics' Circle award.

"Acting can often be about being camp and showing off," he said, explaining his preference for a naturalism so intense it has made audiences at The Real Thing remark that they felt they were hearing his thoughts.

"A lot of people think that's what acting is," Mr. Dillane said. "Watching somebody do something that they've sort of worked out so that they can do the same thing every night and present it."

"Clearly, for some people there is something truthful in that," he continued. "But I can't help feeling very often that the play itself is not being served and that there is a far greater good to be had than is being had. It's an entirely personal thing."

Perhaps Mr. Dillane, who grew up in suburban London, the son of an Australian surgeon, speaks with unusual clarity about acting because he came to it as a second profession.

After studying history and politics at Exeter University, he began a career as a journalist. At 25 he made the leap to drama school, enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic. Reading Hamlet, he said, along with The Empty Space by the director Peter Brook when he was a journalist impelled him to go. "It was one of old Tom's moments beyond language," he said, referring to Mr. Stoppard. "I felt there was some relationship with these extraordinary bits of writing that would be nourishing."

How do others assess his gift? Sam Mendes, artistic director of the Donmar and a recent Oscar winner for his direction of American Beauty, said Mr. Dillane possesses a "technique that is entirely sublimated."

"You think these people can't do it on a big stage and then they do," Mr. Mendes said. "They have audiences leaning forward in their seats."

For Ms. Ehle, playing opposite Mr. Dillane "is always different, and it's always real; it just seems to come through his pores."

David Leveaux, the director of the new production, is well equipped to compare the Henrys then and now in a way that Mr. Dillane, who never saw Mr. Irons in the part, cannot. "Stephen is a sort of time bomb in a way," Mr. Leveaux said.

With Mr. Dillane, he added: "There is a flexibility and immediacy that perhaps people don't associate with the stage or the artifice of language-based plays. He starts from the premise that the audience is very bright, and that, of course, is what ultimately delivers him."

The result, at least at present, is an actor's actor; one of those performers spoken of almost with awe within the industry who has yet to achieve broad public recognition that he may not, in any case, want. (After all, not many ascending London performers would refuse an American agent in favor of the same agent back home, Michelle Braidman, that he has had all along.)

And yes, Mr. Dillane has appeared with Sandra Bullock, albeit in Stolen Hearts, which is among the actress's least-known films. And as Michael Nicholson, the real-life British journalist who smuggled a Bosnian girl back to London in Welcome to Sarajevo in 1997, he provided the unsentimental center to a film made much more stirring for having Mr. Dillane's cool at its core.

In May, he will be seen as Karenin in what looks -- on the basis of an early preview -- to be an astonishingly immediate television retelling of Anna Karenina for Britain's Channel 4; already on release in England, though not yet in the United States, is the Thaddeus O'Sullivan film Ordinary Decent Criminal, with Mr. Dillane playing an Irish policeman in ardent pursuit of Kevin Spacey's cheeky Dublin crook.

"It seems at a certain point I end up entering into this debate about fame," Mr. Dillane said, "as if I have any say in it, as if I'm somehow doing something or not doing something to attract it. And I'm not. I'm just going along."

"I'm getting better at having no expectations," Mr. Dillane said of his career. "Once you start saying, 'Yes, I want this,' then you're setting things up for yourself that get in the way. It's better to go about your business and see what turns up."

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