Sunday, November 16, 2014

'The River': Hugh Jackman Returns to Broadway in a Quietly Enigmatic New Play

The sea trout are running, and all is right with the world—or maybe not so right—in The River, Jez Butterworth’s mystical tale of fishing, love, and longing, opening  today at the Circle in the Square.

In marked contrast to Butterworth’s overblown and bombastic Jerusalem from 2011, The River is quietly poetic, underpinned with the kind of unnerving other-worldliness you might find in one of playwright Conor McPherson’s haunted tales. 

And though the plot is airy and slight (the play clocks in at under 90 intermissionless minutes), the telling of it is a joy to the ear, a mixture of down-to-earth naturalism and a literary stylishness that includes embedded references to poets Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats. Indeed, you might want to read Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus before coming to see the play—or perhaps afterwards if you are seeking to shed light on the proceedings. 

The River is an intimate play, beautifully staged (Ian Rickson directs, and Ultz is responsible for the set design) and well acted by a cast that includes—as everyone surely knows—movie and Broadway superstar Hugh Jackman. Clearly Jackman’s presence adds a certain fillip and undoubtedly is responsible for the sell-out crowds and the hefty ticket prices.  But setting that aside, there is not a trace of ego in Jackman’s performance as a character referred to only as The Man. 

The setting is a fishing cabin. It is a very special night, the night of the new moon and the once-a-year confluence of time and tide during which one might be able to catch the elusive saltwater dwelling sea trout during its upstream run into rivers that have outlets to the sea. The Man, a devout fisherman, has brought a very special woman (Cush Jumbo, here called The Woman) to the cabin. He is convinced she is the one for him, and love and possibility are pervasive. If only she can fish, bliss will be his. 

The interactions in the opening scenes are romantic, messy, and often quite funny. Ms. Jumbo, a versatile actress and a rising star in her own right (she played Marc Antony in the acclaimed all female production of Julius Caesar last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse) more than holds her own against Jackman, and gives a feisty and self-reliant performance as The Woman. The Man, though outmaneuvered at every turn, is quite smitten.

After a while, however, we come to an unexpected bend in The River.The Woman disappears for a time, and when she returns, it is no longer The Woman but someone else, a character identified as The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).  The scene is the same and, in some ways, it is as if no time has passed at all. The Man also carries on in the same charming and romantic tone, but The Other Woman has her own distinct personality; Ms. Donnelly is not merely replacing Ms. Jumbo after some backstage mishap. 

This abrupt shift can be discombobulating to an audience that believes it has been watching a romantic comedy. But if you accept the unfolding of events as naturally as the characters onstage seem to, and forego an insistence on immediate clarity, you’ll understand that you are entering into a different realm altogether.  Be patient. If you rely on logic, you will be—to stick with the fishing theme—missing the boat and following a red herring. Is this another woman, another time—future or past? Is The Man a creep with evil intent, luring women to the cabin during the darkest night of the year in order to do them harm?  Have we gone from romantic comedy to melodrama? 

Accept things as they are and pay heed to the changes in tone and style and mood as The River dances with time and takes us into a place that is dreamlike and evanescent, where it is not the women who are being lured into the net, but The Man, a fisherman doomed forever to chase after the elusive one that got away. 

If this is all too ethereal for you, then just enjoy the intimacy of the moment-by-moment performances, and, if you like to eat fish or enjoy cooking, there is a terrific extended scene in which you can gaze to your heart’s content at Mr. Jackman as he guts a trout and sets about preparing a meal. Then go home, have a glass of wine, and pick up a copy of Yeats.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  

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