A full house at the 776 seat Circle in the Square in Manhattan’s theatre district managed to settle in just before 8PM, for there were signs all over the place announcing “No one seated after the opening curtain.” At the last moment, a few empty seats were filled by the ushers with very grateful standee patrons who had paid $30 each for the privilege of standing for the 85 minute play that was to follow.
The excitement was based, of course, on the fact that the truly big Broadway box office champ Hugh Jackman was the star attraction in this little known new play by Jez Butterworth, which had already been seen in London to some acclaim. The director was Ian Rickson, who had successfully staged the author’s first play, Jerusalem, which had collected considerable critical acclaim when it hit our town and it greatly solidified the burgeoning career of Mark Rylance who played its lead character.
But Hugh Jackman is a different sort of star. Because of his enormous following from his many times out as Wolverine in the XMen series, and because he has tremendous impact on the musical stage as a powerful song and dance man, a mere mention of his name brings unheard of advance sales to any stage project he undertakes.
And he loves theatre, so we’ve had the good fortune to claim him four times now on stage, a place he likes to be every other season or so. This time he’s committed to fourteen weeks, and you can be certain he’ll sell every seat for the entire run. It’s not quite right, this raison d’être, for this time he’s chosen a very odd vehicle, one which may not please those who claim they’d happily pay to hear him read the telephone book (is there still a telephone book?) if need be.
One can see why he chose the role. Called simply “The Man” by its adventurous and ambitious author, it gives Mr. Jackman an opportunity to play quietly, simply, a man who appears to be gentle, shy, macho masculine with the ability to listen to others, to empathize with them, to hold a dead fish in his bare hands before gutting it with those hands, the same hands with which he can tenderly fold a lover into his arms. It all takes place in a cabin he’s owned for years, set on the side of a dock by the river .
The music by Stephen Warbeck sets the mood as lonely and somewhat mysterious. As the lights fade up we find ourselves on a moonless evening when a man brings his new girlfriend to the remote cabin for a night of trout-fishing. Before the night is over, it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems — time is played with and occasionally turned sideways — as memory collides with desire, and to my mind truth becomes the most elusive catch of all. The only other characters on board are listed merely as “Woman” and “Other Woman”, though the listing is not entirely accurate.
Among the many truncated scenes in which there is talk of the art of fishing, even from the fish’s point of view (!), in which the true meaning of love and commitment are discussed, there are those among them that allow us to witness Mr. Jackman cut his 3 pound sea trout, gut it, clean it. He will also chop a large onion, edit and chop herbs to further flavor it, squeeze a lemon onto it, then stuff it with something very green and grassy. He will put it in the oven to prepare it for the evening meal he has promised the young woman who caught it that very day.
It’s very nice, especially for those interested in cooking a sea trout, but to others it’s sort of like watching grass grow. The scene will ultimately fade, and when the next one begins, he will remove the fish from the oven, so we will note that time has passed, and he will now serve it to that Other Woman, and that’s all the plot you are going to get out of me. To be truthful, I didn’t realize she WAS the other woman; I thought (idiotically) that she had merely changed her hair and makeup.
Mr. Butterworth’s use of words is easy on the ears, and I found myself entering each monologue with great interest, certain I’d be enlightened as to where we were and where we were going, but at play’s end I felt I really hadn’t been anywhere at all.
It is only Mr. Jackman who is the revelation here. He’s always been charismatic, remarkably comfortable singing and dancing, though that is most unusual in the James Garners, John Waynes, Henry Fondas and other leading men who offer either gentle or primitive or even intelligent masculinity, but rarely all three in one star, and certainly not in musicals. Hugh Jackman has all of these talents, and he can even slide into the fey as he did brilliantly in “The Boy From Oz. As a result, I stuck with him throughout the play.
The women in support were acceptable but made of more common clay. Cush Jumbo lived up to her charmingly bizarre name as the young Woman with insecurities and ambition; those two ingredients, when mixed, can cause agita, and must be carefully watched. As the older, more sophisticated Other Woman, Laura Donnelly is attractive and knowing, but neither character is universal enough to earn the generic title. “Cush Jumbo” would have seemed a more likely name for the former, for it seemed to perfectly suit the character as played by its namesake. “Laura Donnelly” looks like the lady in the red dress as she is presented to us, more than she does the universal Other Woman.
Ian Rickson has now directed Jez Butterworth’s works on six occasions. I do believe he’s begun to use short cuts that aren’t as clear to us as they are to him. Mr. Jackman’s performance is interesting enough to make a second visit something I wouldn’t mind. But it would be more to satisfy my confusion about the play’s plot and themes than it would be to entertain myself. On the night I attended, Hugh Jackman made a pitch for Broadway Cares – Equity Fights AIDS, and for fifteen minutes we had something vivid and exciting going on up there. It was a triumph and raised a small fortune for that worthy cause. Now THAT was entertainment!
The River is onstage at Circle in the Square,50th Street West of Broadway, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.