Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 8, $35 - $175
British playwright Jez Butterworth has followed up his brilliant, Tony-nominated Broadway hit, Jerusalem, with The River, a perplexing, comparatively slight tale in both length and scope. Hugh Jackman is superb as the Man, who has brought the Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his family’s fishing cabin on a cliff above a river stuffed to the gills with trout. On ULTZ’s rustic set that cuts through the audience, the Man and the Woman discuss fishing, poetry, sunsets, and interior design. She sings W. B. Yeats’s “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and he removes a splinter from her using a rather large knife. She disappears during a nighttime fishing excursion and he desperately calls the police until she finally shows up, this time as the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), both she and the Man acting as if nothing has changed, picking up the narrative as easily as a stream progresses down a mountain. Over the course of a lean eighty-five minutes (Jerusalem clocked in at three hours), the Woman and the Other Woman keep replacing each other as they individually explore the meaning of their relationship with the Man, who may or may not be a true romantic. But there is no doubt that, above all else, he is indeed a man, proud of his fishing heritage, swilling whiskey, and having fun with sharp objects.
Originally performed in London’s tiny Royal Court upstairs theater with Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair) as the Man, Miranda Raison as the Woman, and Donnelly as the Other Woman, The River is more like a Raymond Carver-esque short story filtered through the labyrinthine mind of Jorge Luis Borges than a fully realized theatrical production. That said, what there is of it is, for the most part, intimate and entertaining, until things get out of control in the last twenty minutes, resulting in too much obfuscation, confusion, and mystery in an attempt at philosophical grandeur. The Australian Jackman could barely be any more manly as the Man, waxing poetic over the art of fishing in long soliloquies while wearing thigh-high Wellingtons, a smartly nuanced performance worthy of his ever-growing stature. The English Jumbo (Josephine and I) and the Irish Donnelly (Judgment Day; Philadelphia, Here I Come!) are fine foils for Jackman, going head-to-head and toe-to-toe with him as various truths come out — or remain hidden. Butterworth, who has also written such plays as The Winterling and The Night Heron and is an in-demand screenwriter as well (Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up), has cast his line far into the water, but he doesn’t reel in quite the catch he could have. The night we went, there was an extra bonus, as after the play, Jackman auctioned off his shirts and a trip to the backstage bedroom for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS, raising more than ten thousand dollars as he thoroughly enraptured the adoring crowd with his natural elegance and charming sense of humor.