Monday, November 17, 2014

The River: A Soggy Tale of Fishes

If you went to see Jez Butterworth's The River on Broadway because I raved about the London production, well then I'm really sorry.  It has been the rare experience for me to see a play, love it, and then see a second production that made me question my love of the show.  The first instance of this was the Signature Theatre's production of Angels in America (I saw the replacement cast) which made me question that play's greatness (I knew it was the production and I walked out because I would not watch a play I loved be mistreated).  The River is only the second time I can recall this happening.  As I watched the Broadway production of The River, directed by the same director as in London, Ian Rickson, I was puzzled over what I was seeing.  Where was the mysterious, deep, and emotionally gripping show I saw in London?  What sort of British Kool-aid had I drunk?

With a little time between viewing and writing, I'm not convinced the play itself is actually bad.  But I know this production does it a great disservice. And it's not just a case of a small play in a small venue being blown up on the Broadway stage and losing some of it's magic.  This production feels entirely devoid of the necessary spark and momentum that the original production had. 

Hugh Jackman plays the Man who has taken his girlfriend (Cush Jumbo) to his fishing cabin for the first time. Wooing her with poetry about fishing and an unexpected "I love you" this new couple dance around each other with the guardedness of the previously wounded. Laura Donnelly plays another girlfriend who comes to the cabin at another time. And the echoes of one woman's visit leave imprints on the other's.  In fact earlier conversations are repeated and relived.  Time is not a strict construct and it's all a bit non-linear in this cabin in the woods.

Rickson tries to find a quiet intimacy in the smallest Broadway house, Circle in the Square. Some coziness of the cabin walls is lost when you are staging things openly in the round. The sound of the rushing river perhaps comes off too loud and sounds more like a tap left running (fine it sounds like peeing and not nature). With this openness much of the claustrophobia of the original production could not be reconstructed and with it some of the tension (and naturally once you know some of the surprises some tension is lost anyway).  But the actors should be able to reclaim some of that tension in how they engage with each other.  In fact the play depends on it.  But I felt nothing.

When I first saw it, Dominic West brought an unexpected, danger to the role of The Man. Jackman is not malevolent.  I know that sounds odd for a man who has off played a creature called Wolverine but he moves with delicateness on stage. Despite his bulging biceps (arm vein porn for those who care) and his tall stature I never feared him as I did West. I spent less time worried about what may have happened to these women (I doubt any one would have suspicions of foul play in this production) and more time spent on what was flying around this man's head and why.

I think the piece suffers for it. Making it more internal without that element of fear/hardness/inner darkness makes his pondering softer.  The stakes seem smaller.  There is no drama.  He comes across as a rake but frankly an entirely innocuous one. One who is easily found out by these women.  West had a more pronounced woundedness and desire. Jackman is pained on the surface (squinchy eyes) but it does not go deep. With West you imagined he was capable of cruelness and love and pain and sorrow. Jackman is far too inscrutable--really he's blank.  So we never know why we are here, why we should care, or what this means to anyone. 

On first viewing I thought this was a man doomed to repeat patterns in his life but here it came across like he could not recall which woman said things to him first and he's transposed the same repeating ideas on multiple women.  And if we are believe that this is him remembering or misremembering or reliving these moments of his life, he needs to project something emotionally for us to grab onto. 

Most of the time it did not feel like he was in the same room with the women. If these are meant to be memories he is conjuring then that makes some sense but the urgency and tension that a corporeal dialogue would bring, falls away.  West, Donnelly, and Miranda Raison used the silence between these characters to carry much of the water of the play.  The unspoken was suffused with meaning.  It felt like a tinderbox and potentially explosive at any moment.  There was so much passion, sadness, and want all in this tiny, tiny cabin. And the structure of people coming and going with conversations left mid-stream added to the tension.

On Broadway, it was soggy and cool.  With each passing scene, prior moments did not connect to later ones.  The actors needed to build the world with their behavior and chemistry but it ended up coming across as quite literal.  The mysticism and otherworldly nature of the play is hardly there. It's not about fish and yet this production doesn't seem to know that.

Basically everyone just get in my time machine and come with me to see The River when it was good.   Here's my original review...don't you want to see THAT play?!

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