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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 15, 2015

Misery by William Goldman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Directed by Will Frears. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Michael Friedman. Hair, wigs and make-up by Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young. Fight Directors Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Cast: Bruce Willis, Laurie Metcalf, with Leon Addison Brown.
Theatre: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Joan Marcus

"She's not going to do it. No way she'll do it. She can't do it. She is. No. No. No. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I can't watch. I won't watch. I... Aaaaaaaaaaah... Wait a minute, why are so many people laughing?"

Should you patronize the Broadhurst between now and Valentine's Day, expect that exchanges such as the above will echo through your head with alarming frequency. Misery, the William Goldman adaptation of Stephen King's 1987 novel that just opened, provokes such harried thoughts, confused feelings, and unpredictable reactions. Turning your spine to jelly, power-rolling your eyes the next moment, and later striking you in the funny bone with—well, let's say a sledgehammer. If nothing else can be said about this production, which has been directed by Will Frears and stars Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf, it's not something you can watch passively.

That should be a good thing, right? Maybe, maybe not. In support of the former, let's say that King laid a fitting groundwork with his plot about idol worship gone viciously wrong. Paul Sheldon, a famous contemporary writer of pulpy Victorian fiction, crashes his car in Middle of Nowhere, Colorado, but is rescued by a nurse named Annie Wilkes, who takes him back to her house to heal while the snowed-over roads to the hospital are cleared (so she says). There's only one wrinkle: The writer's self-described "number one fan," she doesn't much like the contents of the final book in the series (about heroine Misery Chastain) she's come to adore, the hard-bitten manuscript he's using to branch out, or the way he lives his life. And she, and she alone, has the power to make him change all of it to her liking.

King's gift as a writer in this genre has always been to expand a minute kernel of an idea into a sweeping horrorscape that plays intimately on the fears many of us prefer not to acknowledge. Although Misery was inspired by King's own experiences trying to diversify with his fantasy book, The Eyes of the Dragon, much to the chagrin of his devoted fans, it extends far beyond those humble roots, combining isolation, obsession, and torture into one chilling narrative that vividly depicts both the short- and long-term effects of relying on something (or someone) too much.

The problems that hobble Goldman's version, especially as seen today, are largely unavoidable. Without detouring wildly from the subject matter, it wasn't possible for the playwright to dig that far into Paul's or Annie's psyches. King, for example, explored them tangentially and through supposition, planting doubts about Annie's veracity by having Paul discover a scrapbook that suggests she might—might—be a serial murder. Goldman ignores this altogether (doing this onstage, the logic undoubtedly ran, would disrupt the rhythm), so you lose a crucial aspect of the silent battle between Paul's perception of Annie as both savior and captor. He seems victimized, she seems crazy—there's not a lot more to it. But that uncertainty is what makes such a story compelling.

Unfortunately, this was so beautifully realized in the 1990 film that the stage play becomes redundant. Yes, Kathy Bates, cast as Annie opposite James Caan, masterfully intertwined the excitement, the hurt, and the psychosis the character thrives on, so that was integral and instantly accessible. (The fact that she earned an Academy Award for this popcorn part reflects the complexity she brought to bear on it.) And close-ups that let you see things from Paul's perspective also nudged and enriched the action as Goldman cannot easily do. But in either its novel or film form, Misery is a small tale, magnified only internally. Because of this, it's less than ideal for the theatre, where thrillers need to be more dramatically complex, or at least intricate, to hit the back row (think Deathtrap, by far the most successful entry of the last 40 years, if not longer).

Frears does all he can to find the proper balance of size, and succeeds well enough, though the nearly nonstop musical underscoring (composed by Michael Friedman) is a misguided movie trick that, in the theater, doesn't so much amplify tension as defuse it. Working with a detail-packed revolving house set (by David Korins) and convincingly spooky lighting (by David Weiner), Frears keeps the atmosphere appropriately charged and the movement between scenes fluid; the special effects (by Gregory Meeh) aren't overdone, and add the right gruesome touches to keep you on edge throughout much of the 90-minute running time. Even so, Frears hasn't developed a good grasp on the tone, and that hurts an evening that must get darker and creepier with every passing second.

The two lead actors are not able to mitigate this. (Leon Addison Brown, who plays an investigating sheriff in a few scenes, is absolutely fine, but, through no fault of his own, inconsequential.) Willis possesses the hulking, brooding authority that Paul needs, and drops in the proper hints about his essentially playful nature so you accept that Paul would, on whatever level, go along with this. But, unlike the rest of the production, his performance is too internal, too obscured for it to land the way he wants it to; it might work well on screen, but it evaporates past the first few rows of the theater or so. In addition, Willis also lacks a supple stage voice; he frequently sounds like he's mumbling and, even with a fair amount of obvious amplification, some of his lines at the performance I attended were inaudible.

Metcalf, a gifted and experienced stage actress, does not lack such tools, so her portrayal has the proper mezzanine-slamming scope. But her trademark intensity, as applied here, reveals Annie as visibly bonkers and untrustworthy from the start. Absent are the softness and care with which Annie reels Paul in; this Annie is driven by rage rather than love, and her devotion the cloak she uses to hide her true self from the world. Being nothing but demented, if not totally hopeless, leaves her nowhere to go and no additional heights to reach, which turns all of the woman's little unstable cruelties into boxes that need to be checked rather than layers that need to be peeled away.

This might also explain part of why it's so often so difficult to know how to react to this Misery: The juxtaposition between what you're seeing and what you know instinctively is too chaotic to reconcile. You know that what you're watching is terrible, but because the realities surrounding the way you're watching it make it just too unbelievable to absorb, it simply doesn't work as theatre the way it should. It's not a bad time, but when you're a millisecond away from witnessing a brutal act and you and the people around you can barely stifle snickers, it's not exactly a good time, either.

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