149 West 45th St. between Broadway & Sixth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 21, $30-$135
As you enter the Lyceum Theatre to see Belgium-born, Amsterdam-based director Ivo van Hove’s gripping, Olivier Award–winning transformation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the curtain is up, and on the stage is a giant rectangular gray cube. It doesn’t quite reach the bottom, so you can get a teasing glimpse of the floor through a translucent border. On either side of the cube are six rows of rising pews, where some of the audience sits, like a jury waiting to hear the evidence. As if unveiling a magic trick, the cube slowly rises to the rafters, and onstage are Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) and Louis (Richard Hansell), two Red Hook longshoremen furiously scrubbing their mostly bare bodies like they’re trying to cleanse their inner souls. “Justice is very important here,” a suited observer notes, strolling outside the two-foot-high bench that encircles three sides of the stage, with a nondescript door on the back wall. The easygoing man is Alfieri (Michael Gould), a neighborhood lawyer who is part Greek chorus, part Our Town–like narrator of this twentieth-century tragedy about misguided love, immigration, honor, morality, and, yes, justice. Eddie is the conscience of the play, a hardworking man who holds tight to his convictions, determined to make a better life for his orphaned niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox), whom he is raising with his wife, Beatrice (Nicola Walker), a stabling influence. When Catherine is offered a job as a stenographer, the overprotective Eddie prefers that she finish school first. “That ain’t what I had in mind,” he says. Eddie and Beatrice take in two of Beatrice’s cousins from Sicily, Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey), illegal immigrants who have snuck into New York on a boat. While Marco is looking to work hard for several years, sending money back home to his wife and kids before making enough to return to Sicily and be with them again, Rodolpho wants to remain in New York and become a performer. When the light-hearted, flashy Rodolpho starts displaying what Eddie considers questionable tendencies — “The guy ain’t right,” Eddie says again and again — while also showing interest in Catherine, Eddie decides to step in between them, setting off a series of battles that have grave consequences.
Originally staged as a one-act in 1955 and then turned into a two-act show the next year directed by Peter Brook and starring Richard Harris and Anthony Quayle, A View from the Bridge is a stark examination of the American dream in mid-twentieth-century Brooklyn. Van Hove, who over his twenty-five-year career has created unique interpretations of works by Ingmar Bergman (Scenes from a Marriage, Persona), Luchino Visconti (Ludwig II), John Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands), Henrik Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema), Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Eugene O’Neill (Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day’s Journey into Night), and many others, in addition to helming the recent world premiere of Lazarus, his New York Theatre Workshop collaboration with David Bowie and Enda Walsh, gets to the gritty heart of A View from the Bridge, his first Miller adaptation, to be immediately followed by his version of The Crucible, which begins previews on Broadway at the end of February. Van Hove, who has also directed numerous operas, focuses on the operatic aspects of Miller’s narrative in this Young Vic production, highlighting oversized emotions, sexual jealousy, and fierce power struggles as the characters seem in the grip of psychological forces sometimes beyond their control, playing out to their inexorable conclusion. The stage, designed by van Hove’s longtime partner, Jan Versweyveld, is set up like a boxing ring, as the characters go at one another both verbally and physically; even Alfieri eventually becomes more than just a narrator, getting involved in the action as he steps through the door and into the middle of it all. Inside the “ring,” everyone is barefoot as raw passion bubbles to the surface and ugly truths are spat out. In his Broadway debut, the tall, bald Strong (The Imitation Game, Low Winter Sun) is a sensation, giving a brutally honest performance that has him barely able to stand up for his curtain call at the end, the exhaustion palpable all over his face and body. Fox is sweetly vulnerable as the tough-talking young woman caught between childhood and becoming an adult, still wanting to be that little girl while also exploring her burgeoning sexuality. Tom Gibbons’s sound design features a cinematic score that will not be to everyone’s taste, while the controversial ending will thrill some and disappoint others. And then, after two complex, intense, intermissionless hours, the gray cube comes back down, and the magic is put away until the next performance.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Through January 31, $92-$149.50
Is China Doll really as bad as all that? “If you can abide it / let the hurdy-gurdy play / Stranger ones have come by here / before they flew away,” Jerry Garcia sings in the 1973 Grateful Dead song “China Doll,” adding, “Take up your china doll / It’s only fractured / and just a little nervous / from the fall.” Robert Hunter’s lyrics are rather apt for David Mamet’s new Broadway play, which closes January 31 after a critically battered run. Reports during previews claimed that audience members were leaving in droves during intermission, that star Al Pacino, who has appeared in such previous Mamet works as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, needed help remembering his lines, and that Mamet was still tinkering with the script, resulting in a delayed official opening. The two-hour play eventually opened on December 4 to scathing reviews. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called it “saggy,” decrying, “Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr. Denham must be going through night after night after night,” referring to Pacino’s costar, Christopher Denham. In New York magazine, Jesse Green declared, “Al Pacino is not an actor of much breadth but he stakes a narrow territory deeply, and that can be brilliant to watch onstage. China Doll, his shaky new Broadway vehicle, by David Mamet, offers flashes of that brilliance between long mucky passages in which he appears to be hunting for the narrative, if not the next line.” In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz chimed in, “Some actors can make reading the white pages fascinating. Pacino fails to make phone calls anything but drudgery.” Rex Reed was rather unkind in the New York Observer, proclaiming, “David Mamet’s ghastly China Doll is the worst thing I’ve seen on a professional New York stage since the ill-fated Moose Murders. On the disaster meter, it might be even worse. Al Pacino walks like an anchovy and looks like an unmade bunk bed.” And the West Coast added its thoughts as well, with Charles McNulty noting in the Los Angeles Times, “The Anarchist, Mamet’s last original play to debut on Broadway, sounded like two typewriters clacking at each other. China Doll is more of a drone.” So it was with bated breath that we attended one of the show’s final performances, hoping that maybe by this time, the play, and Pacino himself, had found its groove. Of course, the reviews had little effect on the box office, as theater lovers and tourists continued to pour in to see one of the best actors in Hollywood history, the beloved Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-winning star of The Godfather, Scent of a Woman, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, and Glengarry Glen Ross.
Entering the theater lobby, we were greeted with large photos of George Soros, the Koch brothers, Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn, and other real-life billionaires, alongside Mickey Ross, the character Pacino plays in China Doll. Ross is an aging, self-obsessed, disheveled mess of a man who is in the midst of negotiating a way out of having to pay five million dollars in taxes for a new private plane, which he is purchasing primarily for his trophy fiancée, the never-seen Francine Pierson. He has no illusions about who he is and what he is doing; he is fully aware that he is an aging, self-obsessed, disheveled mess of a man with a trophy fiancée. Ross spends most of the play on his Bluetooth, arguing about taxes, legal and political shenanigans, and airplane registration numbers, while both chastising and teaching his assistant, Carson (Denham), who sees Ross as a mentor. The first act is not so bad; Pacino’s stumbling, slow-talking style seems fitting for his character, Denham (The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) is a solid sounding board for Pacino, and the plot, about a nasty, greedy one-percenter essentially looking to die in the arms of a beautiful young woman, is not quite wholly annoying yet. But yes, it does indeed get there in the woeful second act, during which you just want to run onstage, grab Pacino’s earpiece, stomp on it, and tell him to shut the hell up already. It’s hard not to cringe when Ross is on the phone with Francine, placating her no matter what. In many ways, Ross is exactly what’s wrong today with America; Mamet might not have been creating a sympathetic character with the bombastic billionaire, but we don’t completely despise him either. Instead, we don’t care about Mickey Ross and his ridiculous dilemma, which is much, much worse. Not even Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Tony- and Emmy-winning set designer Derek McLane (The Pajama Game, Anything Goes) can bring any level of warmth to this cold, unfeeling drama. China Doll might actually work in a condensed one-act version; but as it is, it grows ever-more intolerable as it goes on. But again, critical reviews have had no impact on this very popular show, as evidenced by curtain-opening applause for Mr. Pacino in both the first and second acts as well as a rapturous standing ovation at the end. “I will not condemn you / nor yet would I deny / I would ask the same of you / but failing will not die,” Garcia sings in “China Doll.” If only we could say the same for Mamet and Pacino’s latest collaboration.
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 6, $67-$152
There’s a reason why so many critics consider Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce, Noises Off, one of the funniest plays ever written; it is a nonstop hilarious riff on the presentation of theater itself, and in its latest incarnation, a Roundabout revival at the American Airlines Theatre, it is performed with pinpoint precision timing that will have you gasping in admiration even as you nearly fall out of your chair laughing. The three-act romp begins as a small company is in its final tech rehearsal for the world premiere of Robin Housemonger’s sex comedy Nothing On before opening night at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare. (A fake program for the imaginary Nothing On is slipped inside the Noises Off Playbill to heighten the reality of the fictional play-within-a-play; Housemonger is credited with such previous works as Briefs Encounter and Socks Before Marriage.) Director Lloyd Dallas (Campbell Scott) has a lot on his plate: The actors can’t remember their lines, and his star, the aging doyenne Dotty Otley (Andrea Martin), is confused about where the sardines are. The fictional Nothing On itself is a wicked sendup of British country-house drama: Dotty is Mrs Clackett, elderly housekeeper for the Brent family’s country home, where dapper house agent Roger (David Furr as Garry Lejeune) is attempting a tryst on the sly with ditzy blonde bombshell Vicky (Megan Hilty as Brooke Ashton) while the owners, milquetoast nosebleeder Philip Brent (Jeremy Shamos as Frederick Fellowes) and his wife, the practical Flavia (Kate Jennings Grant as Belinda Blair), arrive for their own secret rendezvous (secret from Inland Revenue, that is; they are avoiding the scourge of the British upper class: income tax). Then a burglar (Daniel Davis as alcoholic has-been Selsdon Mowbray) arrives to add to the confusion. Doors are slammed, entrances are missed, doors are slammed, lines are botched, props are misused, and yet more doors are slammed. As evening turns into morning, the cast and crew — which also includes tense and nervous assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Tracee Chimo) and stage manager Tim Allgood (Rob McClure), who has a highly inappropriate last name — struggle to put it all together, for of course, the show must go on.
The first act is set up as if the audience is watching the rehearsal of Nothing On; for the second act, the living room is flipped around so the audience sees it from the other side, revealing the backstage shenanigans one month later at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne. (The wonderful sets are by Emmy and Tony winner Derek McLane.) Frayn (Copenhagen, Benefactors) and director Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2) now reveal the behind-the-scenes madness that goes on during the first act. The audience has already learned all of the cues, the entrances and exits, but witnessing it from this vantage point is utterly fascinating. The cast and crew’s secret liaisons slowly emerge, and the melodramatics escalate as they enter or leave the play-within-a-play, resulting in some riotous physical comedy while also getting a little too bogged down and repetitive. But all of that is necessary to make the third act one of the smartest and funniest you’ll ever have the pleasure to experience. The show is now concluding its tour at the Municipal Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, where the company is once again performing the first act. Only this time, all of the actor’s quirks and failures, inside jokes and relationship problems from the first two acts collide in a delirious extravaganza of fun and nonsense worthy of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. Martin (Pippin, My Favorite Year), Davis (Wrong Mountain, Talking Heads), Furr (The Importance of Being Earnest, Accent on Youth), Jennings Grant (The Lyons, Proof), Hilty (Wicked, 9 to 5: The Musical), and Shamos (Clybourne Park, The Assembled Parties) do an exceptional job switching between their dual roles, with Martin in particular excelling and Hilty (who will not be performing February 12-14) nearly stealing the show with her squeaky voice and absurdly mannered body positions. (Noises Off debuted on Broadway in 1983 with Dorothy Loudon, Victor Garber, Brian Murray, Deborah Rush, Douglas Seale, and Amy Wright and was revived in 2001 with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince, T. R. Knight, and Katie Finneran. The 1992 Peter Bogdanovich film starred Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker, and Marilu Henner.) Herrin does a marvelous job of maintaining the frenetic pace while allowing the characters to develop their unique personalities; he has a ball playing with the audience’s expectations, keeping everyone on the edge of their seat, both gaping in wonder and trying not to fall over in laughter. And through it all are those doors.
In “A Glimpse of the Noumenal,” a fake condensed essay from Eros Untrousered — Studies in the Semantics of Bedroom Farce that appears in the Nothing On program, JG Stillwater writes, “A recurring and highly significant feature of the genre is a multiplicity of doors. If we regard the world on this side of the doors as the physical one in which mortal men are condemned to live, the world or worlds concealed behind them may be thought of as representing both the higher and more spiritual plane into which the postulants hope to escape, and the underworld from which at any moment demons may leap out to tempt or punish. When the doors do open, it is often with great suddenness and unexpectedness, highly suggestive of those epiphanic moments of insight and enlightenment which give access to the ‘other,’ and offer us a fleeting glimpse of the noumenal.” This second Broadway revival of Noises Off — the title refers to offstage sounds — is chock full of epiphanic moments that are as noumenal as they are phenomenal, in more than just the Kantian meaning. It gives the audience an inside look at the potential catastrophes that await live theater, yet performed to near perfection in a joyful tribute to the glory of the stage.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 6, $60-$140
Our Mother’s Brief Affair, Richard Greenberg’s eleventh collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club, starts off promisingly enough, but a bizarrely bombastic reveal shortly before intermission derails the rest of this quiet family drama. Tony winner Linda Lavin stars as Anna, a variation of a character previously introduced in Greenberg’s Everett Beekin and played by Bebe Neuwirth in 2001 at Lincoln Center. On one of her many deathbeds yet again, the Burberry-loving Anna tells her son, Seth (Greg Keller), that she had an affair with a man (John Procaccino) back in 1973, when she took Seth to Juilliard for his weekly music class. Although Seth, an obituary writer used to examining people’s lives in death, thinks she’s just making up another story, his twin sister, Abby (Kate Arrington, in her seventh Greenberg work), confirms its truth. Anna’s confession becomes even more shocking when she tells them who the man is, a minor but real person in the Cold War and a figure of revulsion to New York’s Jewish intelligentsia. The name is less than well known enough to require a sort of extended live footnote, so the show comes to a screeching halt as Seth and Abby explain who he is and what he did. Greenberg’s choice of partner for Anna is so head-scratchingly strange that the play simply can’t get back on track.
Lavin (The Lyons, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), at seventy-eight, adds some sex appeal to her role as a mother with secrets of her own that are finally coming out, as she claims once again to be facing the end. Procaccino (Incident at Vichy, Nikolai and the Others), one of New York theater’s busiest, and most dependable, actors, is laden down with playing a historical figure that overwhelms his presence. Keller (The Who and the What, Of Good Stock) and Arrington (Grace, The Iceman Cometh), as dysfunctional gay twins, are expository characters who never quite develop their own personalities. Santo Loquasto’s easygoing set consists of a few chairs and a park bench, where Seth, Abby, Anna, her husband (also played by Procaccino), and her lover go back and forth between 1973, 2003, and 2006, with everyone watching what unfolds regardless of what time period they are from, which is occasionally unnerving. MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow never quite pulls together the time shifts and plot reveals; despite a fine lead performance by Lavin, Our Mother’s Brief Affair — which was originally staged as a slightly shorter one-act in 2009 by South Coast Rep, with Jenny O’Hara, Arye Gross, Marin Hinkle, and Matthew Arkin and directed by Pam MacKinnon — feels more like a short story, or a subplot from another play, unable to sustain itself, particularly because it just can’t support the major twist that pulls the rug out from under whatever possibilities it might have had.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 1, $75 - $195
The Color Purple achieves the extremely rare, elusive grand slam with its stirring new Broadway revival. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her 1982 novel about a horribly abused and mistreated girl in the Depression-era American South. Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, was nominated for eleven Oscars (but won none). In 2005, the book and film were turned into a Broadway musical, earning ten Tony nominations and winning one (LaChanze for Best Performance by a Leading Actress). And now the revival is poised for yet more awards in a streamlined version at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. London native Cynthia Erivo makes a rousing Broadway debut as Celie, a fourteen-year-old Georgia girl whose pa (Kevyn Morrow) has gotten rid of her two children and is trying to pawn her off on a nasty farmer known as Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who would prefer to marry Celie’s younger sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). “She worse than I thought,” Mister complains. “Don’t even look like kin to Nettie. Maybe I —” Pa cuts him off by saying, “Maybe you’ll put Celie in charge of yo chirren fore they git big enough to kill you in the night.” Mister’s son, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), has married the bold, strong Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who isn’t going to tolerate any disrespect. “Wives is like chirren,” Mister tells his son. “Nothing better for ’em than a good sound beating,” to which Sofia responds with “Hell No!,” a defiant number delivered with power and grace by Brooks, singing out for women everywhere. “Why you so scared / I’ll never know / But if a man / raise his hand, / Hell no!” she declares. The town is soon sent into a furor when Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson) returns, a popular singer whom all the men, including Mister, one of her many former lovers, melt over. “Drinkin’ all the gin / Lovin’ all the mens / Strumpet in a short skirt / Got no pride!” the women sing, while the men proclaim, “Oh Lord, let me cross / into her promised land.” Shug takes a liking to Celie while also still desiring Mister, setting up a conflict in which Celie must decide whether she can have a better life.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman (’night, Mother; The Secret Garden) and with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, The Color Purple is a beautifully rendered revival, evoking the book and film while also standing on its own. Two-time Tony-winning director John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company) keeps things relatively simple. His folksy set features ramshackle wooden walls on which dozens of chairs hang, essentially the only props used in the production; the characters take the chairs off the walls, sit on them, then put them back; the many extra chairs serve as a kind of invitation to the audience to be part of this close-knit community. Norman carefully navigates the characters’ religious faith, avoiding preachy moments; Celie tells Shug at one point, “I prayed to God my whole life and what he done. Nuthin’.” Shug replies, “Celie, you better hush. God might hear you,” to which Celie responds, “Let ’im hear me. If God ever listened to a poor colored woman, the world would be a different place.” Rising British star Erivo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Sister Act) and Brooks (Taystee on Orange Is the New Black) are smashing in their Broadway debuts, the former bringing down the house with the legitimate showstopper “I’m Here,” the latter a force all her own as Sofia, who represents so much of the pain and suffering experienced by African Americans, as well as the determination to ultimately fight back. Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson, and Rema Webb are delightful as the three gossiping church ladies who form a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings with a clever sense of humor; Compere in particular has an impressive presence and theater-rattling voice that should lead to bigger roles. Surprisingly, the weakest part of the show are the songs given to Hudson (Dreamgirls, The Secret Life of Bees) in her Broadway debut; Hudson is laden with standard, syrupy ballads that don’t fit in with the rest of the Gospel and R&B numbers, although her costumes, by Ann Hould-Ward, are divine. The Color Purple has turned the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre into a thrilling, inspirational juke joint, bringing yet another life to Walker’s remarkable story.
The first-ever BroadwayCon is being held January 22-24 at the Hilton in Midtown, with dozens of Great White Way stars participating in panels, workshops, autograph and Q&A sessions, meet and greets, and live performances. Weekend passes are sold out, but you can still get single-day tickets to see cast and crew members from such shows as Fun Home, Hamilton, Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Les Misérables, Rent, Wicked, School of Rock, and many others. Below are only some of the highlights.
Friday, January 22
Something Wonderful: A Look Behind The King and I, with Christopher Gattelli, Donald Holder, Scott Lehrer, Bartlett Sher, Michael Yeargan, and Catherine Zuber, moderated by Ted Chapin, Beekman, 2:00
The BroadwayCon 2016 Opening, with surprise guests, MainStage, 3:30
History Is Happening in Manhattan: The Hamilton Panel, with Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Phillipa Soo, moderated by Blake Ross, MainStage, 5:00
Autograph Session: Rent, Nassau, 9:00
The BroadwayCon Jukebox, with Kerry Butler, Jenn Colella, Anthony Rapp, Ryann Redmond, Stark Sands, and Alysha Umphress, moderated by Ben Cameron, MainStage, 9:30
Saturday, January 23
Autograph Session: Fiddler on the Roof, Americas Hall I, 10:20 am
Master Class: Anthony Rapp, Gramercy West, 11:00 am
A Conversation with Sheldon Harnick, MainStage, 12:30
Dance, Ten: Broadway’s Choreographers, with Christopher Gattelli, Lorin Latarro, and Kathleen Marshall, moderated by Michael Gioia, Nassau, 3:00
Divas, Darlings, and Dames: Women in Broadway Musicals of the 1960s, with Stacy Wolf, Beekman, 4:00
Sunday, January 24
Audition Q&A with Bernie Telsey, Gramercy West, 9:00 am
Obsessed! Live: Disaster! Edition, with Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Max Crumm, Lacretta Nicole, Adam Pascal, Faith Prince, Jennifer Simard, and Rachel York, moderated by Seth Rudetsky, MainStage, 11:00 am
I Can Do That! Broadway Siblings, with Karmine Alers, Yassmin Alers, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Maggie Keenan-Bolger, Sutton, 12 noon
The “Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkies, Matildas, and Mormonses” Singalong, Sutton, 3:00
The First Annual BroadwayCon Cabaret, with Nick Adams, Alex Brightman, Jeremy Jordan, Lesli Margherita, and Krysta Rodriguez, moderated by Rob McClure, MainStage, 11:00 pm
235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 14, $59 - $169
It’s extremely difficult to pull off a successful suspense thriller on Broadway. After Deathtrap and Wait Until Dark, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with another solid example. So it was with high expectations that Misery opened on Broadway in November. The story of an unbalanced obsessive keeping her favorite novelist hostage in her home began with Stephen King’s superb 1987 novel, one of his first and best non-supernatural books. Three years later, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman turned it into a nail-biting film, a gripping psychological thriller starring an Oscar-nominated Kathy Bates and James Caan. Unfortunately, the material can’t pull off a hat trick, as the much-anticipated stage version, with wryly comic action hero Bruce Willis making his Broadway debut as writer Paul Sheldon and Tony-nominated theater and television veteran Laurie Metcalf taking on the role of deranged nurse Annie Wilkes, is dull and lifeless, delivering only occasional moments of shock and tension. After a serious car accident in a small snow-laden town in 1987 Colorado, Sheldon is rescued by Wilkes, who brings him to her isolated home and repeatedly tells him, “I’m your number one fan.” She lives for his Misery Chastain series, popular bodice rippers set in the nineteenth century. Wilkes claims that the roads are closed and the phone lines are down, so she will take care of his busted shoulder and two broken legs, dispensing painkillers on a regular schedule. Barely able to move, Sheldon cautiously learns to deal with Wilkes’s clearly disturbed personality, which can instantly swing from ridiculously sweet to frighteningly violent. When Wilkes finds, reads — and hates — the manuscript of his latest book in the car, things get bad, but the plot takes an even nastier turn when Sheldon’s latest Misery book is published and Wilkes is not exactly happy with the ending. “A writer is God to the people in a story; he made them up just like God made us up,” she screams at him. “As far as Misery goes, God just happened to have a couple of broken legs and be in my house, eating my food.”
Misery never finds its groove. Willis (Die Hard, Pulp Fiction), a likable actor who last appeared on a New York stage in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 1985, brings no depth or range to Sheldon, playing him with the same smirking, even keel throughout; at times it feels as if he is merely reading his lines instead of performing them. Metcalf (Roseanne, November), who has become one of New York’s most dependable and enjoyable actors to watch in such shows as Domesticated and The Other Place, is unable to infuse Wilkes with the intense flashes of evil so expertly captured by Bates in the film, and Annie’s trademark phrases (“cockadoodie,” “dirty bird”) come off as silly. The sledgehammer scene will have you jumping out of your seat, but more because of how it’s technically achieved. In his Broadway directorial debut, Will Frears maintains a flat level that is in desperate need of energy, missing from the start with the lack of chemistry between the two leads. Goldman, who has written such books and screenplays as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride, has trimmed the story down to ninety minutes, cutting out critical parts of Wilkes’s back story and making the sheriff (Leon Addison Brown) more of a stock character instead of the investigative cop he is in the book and film. Of course, Frears, the son of accomplished film director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, The Queen), doesn’t have access to the equipment of the movies or outdoor locations here; he cannot zoom in on Sheldon’s and Wilkes’s faces or use quick edits and swift camera movement to build tension. David Korins’s rotating set helps contribute some much-needed action to the claustrophobic proceedings, but it’s not enough to revive this Misery.