Misery on Broadway is the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s story about a writer who’s imprisoned by a berserk fan. It’s not as good as either King’s novel nor the movie, but it’s likely to appeal to those who don’t know either, and to the number one fans of Bruce Willis.
Willis, making his Broadway debut, portrays Paul Sheldon, a novelist who has become rich and famous writing 19th century romances featuring a heroine named Misery Chastain. Feeling trapped by his own success, Paul has killed Misery off in his ninth Misery novel, and finished a manuscript of serious literary fiction. A creature of habit, he wrote this latest novel, as all his previous novels, in a mountain resort in Colorado. After leaving with the manuscript during a snow storm, he got into a car accident.
All this happens before the play begins. We first see Paul waking up from four days of unconsciousness in bed in the remote home of Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf), a former nurse who rescued him from the car wreck, and has been tending to his injuries. Wilkes declares herself his number one fan.
The first inkling that something might be off about her is when she recounts for Paul the conversation she had about him with her pet pig, whom she’s named Misery, and then she imitates the pig’s response. Soon after, having asked Paul permission to read the manuscript of his new novel, she is disappointed by the foul language in it. “My mother would have washed my mouth out with soap and water for using that kind of language,” she says and that’s in fact what Annie does — forcing Paul to wash his pain medication down with soapy water.
Things escalate when Annie goes into town to buy his ninth Misery book, and is infuriated to discover that Misery dies in it. Annie comes up with a plan – to make Paul burn his new manuscript, and to write a tenth Misery book, in which he somehow brings Misery back to life. It has become clear to Paul that Annie is a full-out psychotic, and he is trapped for real.
Stephen King’s 1987 novel, a bestseller, was a bloody page-turner, reportedly inspired in part by his fans’ rejection of a book he had written a few years earlier because it was not in his normal horror genre. But “Misery” was also critically praised for its musings on the nature of artistic creation.
The 1990 movie that followed, directed by Rob Reiner with a screenplay by William Goldman, toned down the gore, and turned up the glamour – Lauren Bacall makes a cameo as Paul’s literary agent. It is most memorable for Kathy Bates’ exquisite performance as Annie – hilarious, scary and believable — which won Bates an Academy Award, and turned Paul, albeit well-played by James Caan, into something of a straight man. In contrast to the critical reception for the novel, Roger Ebert said of the movie: “It does not illuminate, challenge or inspire, but it works.”
William Goldman also wrote the Broadway adaptation, which is trimmed to three characters but is otherwise often a nearly word-for-word repeat of his screenplay. It, too, is not challenging or illuminating, but it also doesn’t work as well. Willis spends most of his time in bed, and the rest of it in a wheelchair; his job as an actor is more or less simply to react to Annie’s escalating craziness. Although he does manage some priceless blank stares, his acting registers as something close to a non-performance in a 1,100-seat Broadway house.
It doesn’t help that Metcalf’s performance, while certainly competent, pales beside the memory of Kathy Bates’. It’s probably unfair to blame Metcalf, who is a fine actress with an illustrious stage career both before and after her best-known stint as Roseanne’s television sister. It would certainly be silly to dump on Willis, who’s the reason why the show is drawing an audience. Director Will Frears is simply hobbled by the absence of the movie’s myriad close-ups, as well as Annie’s actual pig.
The best thing about Misery on Broadway is probably the set by David Korins (who is also the scenic designer for Hamilton.) We see the exterior of Annie’s house but then it revolves to show the interior of the bedroom, and revolves further to reveal the hallway and the kitchen. Paul’s wheeling himself through this revolving house while Annie is away, coupled with Michael Friedman’s incidental music, provides what suspense exists in this play being marketed as a “suspense thriller.”
Misery is on stage at the Broadhurst Theater (235 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, between 7th and 8th Avenues), through February 14, 2016.
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