business news in context, analysis with attitude

First, let me be up front about a personal bias: Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" is one of my favorite plays. I've now seen it three times, in three separate productions, on Broadway.

The first, with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close in the leads, directed by Mike Nichols, I saw in 1984. The second was in 2000, with Steven Dillane and Jennifer Ehle starring. And last weekend, I saw yet another production, starring Ewan MacGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One of the reasons I love 'The Real Thing" so much is that it is about both words and emotion; its protagonist is a playwright who often hides behind verbal gymnastics rather than deal with his own feelings … and when he does start to connect with his emotions in a sometimes primal way, he finds that words are not enough, that they can be inadequate. Plus, the writing is gorgeous …funny, ironic and yet deeply felt.

I love live theater, and wish I could go more often. (Broadway shows make major league baseball games look inexpensive by comparison.) I was determined to see this new iteration of the play because I was anxious to see how it fared with a different cast and director.

Go figure, I got a business lesson.

Because the thing is, the words were the same. But the play was not, and I have to believe that is largely because Ewan MacGregor either isn't the stage actor that Jeremy Irons is, or that he did not connect to the character in the same visceral way. He was good, but he was not as profoundly affecting as Irons was.

It was 30 years ago that I first saw "The Real Thing," and yet I have such strong memories of that show that I could tell when MacGregor either didn't nail the jokes or didn't seem to understand the ironic twists that are woven throughout the play. Some of this is taste, of course, but for me it was just a flatter interpretation that drained the play of its romance and passion. Whenever Irons was on stage, one could feel lust and confusion and guilt and love and a palpable intelligence and even a certain amount of arrogance. With MacGregor, one could watch a pretty good actor playing a part.

There's an enormous difference.

Much of the blame, I suspect, can be laid at the feet of the director, a fellow named Sam Gold who does his actors no favors with his staging, which seems curiously enervated. The Mike Nichols version pretty much crackled with energy and some fascinating mixture of love and lust, seasoned by literate sophistication, but this doesn't have any of that.

I did love Maggie Gyllenhaal, though … she manages to transcend the production's problems with a performance that is lovely and full of feeling.

The business lesson?

Simply put, people matter.

A business, after all, is like a play. Especially if the business is a brand. It should have a story to tell and a guiding intelligence; it has actors, it has stage left and stage right, and it should have a director who makes sure that everything and everybody are best positioned to spin the tale in the most effective way, to bring the guiding intelligence behind the business to life.

And if the director - or the person in charge of the business - is not up to the task, or if one of the lead actors in the play…er, business…does not connect with the role and misses his marks and steps on the jokes, well, it may not matter how good the business concept is.

Now, to be clear, it isn't a matter of me just liking the first version I saw and being unwilling to accept any other approach to the play. In fact, I've seen three different versions of "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway over the years - with Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willy Loman. And I really liked them all, for different reasons. And I can't tell you how many different actors I saw in '"Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" back in the seventies - I loved those plays, saw each of them multiple times, and found something to love in all sorts of different performances.

I still love "The Real Thing," but my feelings about it remain connected to a version that I saw 30 years ago, a version that remains vividly imprinted on my memory.

Business brands have to be careful that even as they age and evolve, their stories are being told with accuracy, passion, energy and electricity. If they're not, then closing night may come faster than desired.

That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

KC's View: