Tom Stoppard's plays have an artifice that can charm and infuriate in equal measure. This revival of his 1982 work looks inward to a playwright's own box of tricks, and the damage they do when unleashed on their owner. Roundabout Theatre Company, which specializes in bringing British plays to Broadway, has done its best to brighten its dated, indoor firework fizzle with a star cast of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor and Cynthia Nixon. They do little to salvage one of Stoppard's least likeable creations.
His plot tortuously circles playwright Henry and his mistress Annie's strategic wrangles as they attempt to out-manouevre each other onto the moral high ground. Henry is playing the martyred husband as Annie plays the field. Meanwhile Annie has staked her moral claim by taking on the cause of Brodie, a Scottish soldier who's in prison after setting fire to a memorial wreath during a political protest.
Gyllenhaal as Annie is sensually idealistic with sharp edge, able to unselfconsciously bring a bag of mushrooms as a gift to a dinner party, or seduce the host the second his wife hoves from view. By comparison, Nixon as the unwitting Charlotte is the weakest of the set – tasked with delivering a succession of brutal, blasé one-liners that she spits out with the same desiccated struggle that's brought to her technically correct, but paper-thin English accent.
Stoppard's script isn't short of flashes of wit, and some of them shock the audience into laughter. But his longer philosophising passages unravel the neutrality, or loadedness of language, the nature of physical commitment, the indignity of adultery – and the cast too, who struggle to tie together their spinning subclauses into coherence. McGregor particularly suffers as Henry, with an everyman strength that fails to understand what a pathetic man this struggling playwright is – one willing to rewrite Brodie's appalling play to keep his mistress's wavering affections. It's symptomatic of director Sam Gold's reluctance to interrogate or challenge either his actors, or the play's setting.
Tied to a cluttered drawing room, David Zinn's set design manages to be both overengineered and simplistic – textured white wallpaper undermines the period accuracy aimed for with the well-stocked bookshelves. When required, the whole wall splits expensively and unevocatively across its middle to make a train carriage window, but without transporting us one stop beyond the staid atmosphere of the previous acts.
In fact, there's an unassailable sense of stuffiness about the whole production, and Gold's attempts to freshen the air have the guacheness of a teenager's obsessive sprays of Impulse or Lynx. The actresses duet to the cheap pop music that Henry idolises in reedy harmonies that undermine their characters' avowed hatred of the genre.
The more than thirty years since Stoppard penned this play haven't made it any more lovable, but this tired production also makes it feel still older. These bickering actresses and intellectuals are stiff-jointed, limbering up to long speeches enlivened only by moments of youthful spark.