Sunday, November 15, 2015

MISERY: Highly Entertaining Journey into Stephen King Territory

Guilty pleasures abound in William Goldman’s highly entertaining, often wryly comic adaptation of Stephen King’s psychological thriller Misery, opening tonight at the Broadhurst Theater and starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the tale of a popular romance novelist who is rescued, then imprisoned, by his deranged “#1 fan” after a near fatal auto accident.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that this is a terrific yarn that Mr. King concocted, one that borders on the modern mythic, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. So even if you are familiar with the 1987 novel or the later film version starring Kathy Bates and James Caan – and therefore already know how things will wind up in the end – you are sure to be caught up in the way things unfold. Knowing what is going to happen merely adds to the enjoyment. Misery finds its equivalent to Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in one involving a sledgehammer, whose appearance will set your heart a-thumpin’, as will various other weapons (including a kitchen knife that brings to mind the one wielded by Anthony Perkins in Psycho) that pop up suddenly and threateningly through the evening. 

This incarnation of Misery – the third stage adaptation of the novel, including a musical version produced in Holland – features a quietly sly and snarky Mr. Willis as the novelist Paul Sheldon, and the incomparable Laurie Metcalf as the seemingly steady Annie Wilkes whose mental stability completely unravels during the course of the 90-minute intermissionless production that has been lovingly shaped by director Will Frears.     

At play’s opening, Paul lies in a bed in Annie’s house in rural Colorado. He has been immobilized by multiple fractures of his legs and right arm in the accident during a monster snowstorm.  Annie found and rescued him, and now she is ministering to him, a man she idolizes as the creator of a series of romantic novels about a 19th century character called Misery Chastain. 

These books have been a godsend to Annie, who has lived alone for many years following a failed marriage and has found solace in the series. But Paul has grown weary of his heroine. His latest book about her will be his last; Misery dies at the end. When Annie finds out…  Well, hell hath no fury like a crazy lady denied her romance novels. Before you know it, she has purchased a used typewriter and some paper, and she compels Paul, now her dependent prisoner, to bring Misery back to life. 

What makes this such a strong production is the interaction between the two stars. You cannot take your eyes off Ms. Metcalf. Her Annie is scary and unpredictable in everything she does, teetering precariously between the timid tongue-tied hero worshipper and the crazed and dangerous lunatic. You never know which side of her personality will appear when the door to the bedroom opens.

Yet Bruce Willis’s Paul is not without recourse as he strives to manipulate or incapacitate Annie and make his escape, nor is he as physically helpless as he would seem. They are quite a match, these two. As Annie puts it as she injects Paul with a strong sedative during one of their many struggles:  "When are we going to develop a sense of trust?" Never, we hope.

The pair makes for a splendid team of opposites, and they do seem to be having a ball playing off one another. At one point during the performance I attended, Ms. Metcalf’s hand slipped while using an important prop, missing its target. The two of them broke character and started laughing – their delight only adding to the audience’s delight. A third character, the local sheriff played by Leon Addison Brown, makes an appearance from time to time, and it is also fun to watch the inner workings of Annie’s mind as she fends off his questions about the missing writer. 

The production is well supported by David Korins’s terrific revolving set, which reveals other parts of Annie’s house, and by the original musical underscoring by Michael Friedman along with recorded piano performances by Annie’s favorite entertainer, Liberace. 

There may be no eternal revelations to be examined here, and some viewers may not like the way the comic absurdity is played up, but you most assuredly are in for a treat by spending the evening with these two crackerjack actors.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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