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This Caftan Tells a Hundred Stories

Date: Oct 27, 2014
Cynthia Nixon's caftan is a fabulous fashion statement, yes, but it's also an emblem of how costumes enhance the storytelling in Roundabout's current Broadway revival of The Real Thing.

The caftan---a glorious black-and-white number with a paint-splatter pattern and matching shirt underneath---operates on several layers at once. For one thing, it tells us something important about Charlotte, Nixon's character in Tom Stoppard's play, which charts how a playwright named Henry leaves his actress wife (Charlotte) for an activist named Annie.

While the characters are clearly delineated in Stoppard's script, with Charlotte's acidic wit and confident maturity at odds with Annie's youthful passion and naiveté, costume designer Kaye Voyce knew that her work had to make those differences even sharper. That's why, when Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband Max (Josh Hamilton) come over for a visit, Annie sports a denim jacket and snappy floral skirt, while Charlotte greets them in her flowing frock.

"Annie, Maggie's character, has a kind of earthiness and playfulness about how she dresses," Voyce explains. "But Cynthia's character has more elegance. Partially that's a difference in age and partially it's a difference in their place in life. It's even just how those two actresses look and feel."

But the clothes have to do more than indicate who these characters are. They also have to tell us when they are. The Real Thing takes place in London in the early 1980s---it originally ran on Broadway in 1983---which means that by now, it's a period piece. "We had to figure out which pieces felt authentic to the period, but didn't feel like the joke of the early 80s," says Voyce. "But they also couldn't feel too hip. There's a way, especially in New York, in which people wear vintage clothing that feels cool, and a lot of that is from the early 80s."

She continues, "We didn't want to have those layers of information getting in the way of these people on stage. There would be things Maggie would put on, for instance, and we'd say, 'That's fantastic, but no. She looks like a college girl in Williamsburg.' We had to make it natural and real while avoiding this other possible track."

To find just the right looks, Voyce spent a lot of time in vintage stores, and it was not always easy tracking down items that felt like they were from the proper decade, seemed like they were right for the characters, and didn't have huge shoulder pads or bright pastel patches. Sometimes, she had to rely on modern clothing that had a retro feel.

The caftan, for instance, is available in department stores right now. "I got it because there was something about the print that felt like the designer caftans of the period," Voyce says. "It felt like Bill Blass or Oscar de la Renta. In researching it, I think the women who had those amazing caftans basically held on to them and wore them forever, so the real things were really, really hard to find. Luckily, somebody made a new one for us!"

And it's important that the caftan---as well as all the other costumes in the show---seem like things a real person could actually buy. While Stoppard's language is packed with dense ideas and beautifully crafted passages about the nature of love, this production, which is directed by Sam Gold, strives to seem realistic.

Voyce thinks the show gains something by not trying to match the heightened aesthetic of the dialogue. "The words do that job so well that the design and the direction can be doing something else," she says. "We can hopefully give that theatrical element a little more weight by balancing it against what we're doing, which is trying to find that sense of authenticity."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photos by Joan Marcus