Monday, November 24, 2014

The River at Circle In The Square

Hugh Jackman is back on Broadway. Let the box office numbers rejoice. (Not to mention the uptick in donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS for the Gypsy of the Year campaign). This time Mr. Jackman headlines The River, the 2012 play by Jez Butterworth.  Mr. Butterworth's last work on Broadway was the 2011 Tony-nominated Jerusalem for which its star Mark Rylance won the Tony for Lead Actor in a Play. Whether Mr. Butterworth or Mr. Jackman can repeat that critical success is unknown. The River is a box office success and a limited extension of its planned performance run has already been announced.

Circle In The Square is in a three-quarter thrust stage for this production. Designer Ultz has created a weather-worn cabin which creates a perfect atmosphere for this very mysterious play in harmony with the lighting design of Charles Balfour and particularly the amazing sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. The River would be a front runner for the sound design Tony award if it had not been discontinued as a category by the Tony nominating committee. So what mysterious story has Mr. Butterworth created for this marvelously designed scene?

Well, truth be told The River is a bit of a murky, muddy mess. We are at the cabin of The Man (Hugh Jackman) who has brought his new girlfriend The Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his family cabin to share his love of fishing for sea trout. The Woman, winsomely portrayed by Ms. Jumbo is a very literary person who is more interested in the beautiful sunset and the setting than she is in fishing. The next scene The Man is frantic as he tries to reach help on his cell phone as a woman has gone missing while they were out fishing. Turns out said woman is The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), another girlfriend who he also has brought to experience the sea trout fishing experience. Ms. Donnelly's Other Woman is more earthy and adventuresome, eager to embrace the strange experiences she had while lost on the darkened riverbank or eat the spoils of her catch. Without giving up too much of the twists and turns in this plot, suffice it to say that Mr. Butterworth has the audience experience The Man's evening with both women in mostly alternating scenes.

In the end the audience may get the deeper meaning of what Mr. Butterworth is trying to achieve. Or the audience could end up wondering why there is so much emphasis on the poetry of Ted Hughes and W.B. Yeats. The River is a very philosophical work.  Mr. Butterworth has added a lot of pondering and pontificating monologues, particularly on the joys of fishing for sea trout on a moonless night when the fish run.  Or, as this reviewer witnessed, some audience members may simply wander down 8th Avenue questioning whether The Man is a serial killer.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances or the direction by Ian Rickson. Perhaps the play suffers in being in a larger theater than the sub-100 seat theater it played in London thereby losing true intimacy with the audience.

Mr Jackman embraces the complexity of The Man. He is at heart a man searching for true love, only to find disappointment again and again through the choices he makes. On the other hand Mr. Jackman has become clearly expert at gutting and prepping a sea trout dinner on stage. Prepapre with Fennel, leeks (washed under the faucet not soaked), lemon, salt, maybe pepper in case you were wondering.

And there in lies the problem with The River. There is nothing wrong with a play being deeply philosophical, lyrical and non-linear. However there is a problem when a play is so densely written that it is a true challenge to figure out what are the intentions of the playwright. Suffice it to say, no The Man is not a serial killer. To draw your own conclusions about what The River means you will have to try to get one of the hottest tickets on Broadway this fall and come to your own conclusions over The River's scant 85 minute running time.

The River is being performed at Circle In The Square on Broadway through February 8, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre

Someone needs to propose writing a dissertation on the recent trend of depicting the end of industrial Britain in musical theater. There certainly are more and more candidates for analysis. The latest is Sting's love letter to his home town, Wallsend, a former shipyard town most famous for building the Carpathia, the ship that responded to the sinking of the Titanic. What is good about The Last Ship is the haunting score by Sting, some terrific performances by the acting ensemble, and the atmospheric direction by Joe Mantello. What hurts The Last Ship and ultimately makes it not quite a satisfying evening of theater is that its subject invites comparison to the death of industrial Britain musicals that have come before it. Many of the themes in The Last Ship will lead a veteran theatergoer inevitably to start making comparisons, not in favor of the well meaning The Last Ship.

Gideon Fletcher is a young teenager with a girl he loves and a father with whom he has a difficult relationship. When Dad is permanently injured he pressures young Gideon into entering the family business. Instead Gideon runs away taking to a life at sea. Fifteen years later he returns after learning of his father's death. The town's shipyard has closed and the ghosts of the past haunt Gideon in the present day. When the Catholic priest Father O'Brien proposes that the workers occupy the shipyard and build one last ship to show the world what skills are being lost forever in the name of progress and cheap overseas labor, Gideon ends up becoming a reluctant leader.

A large problem with The Last Ship lies in its book which is co-written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Mr. Yorkey left this project to bring If/Then to Broadway. The plot has holes in it and suffers from having too melancholic a tone throughout the piece. As an example, Father O'Brien puts up the church building fund to build the ship. For an economically depressed area that must have been quite the fund. There is no clue what will happen to the ship once it is completed beyond its maiden voyage. The script would have been served by simply adding perhaps publicity for the project (bring in journalists or television coverage) and an actual goal for the ship rather than what seems like a metaphorical ending.

The tale is also not served by having characters and plot points that are almost cliches. The hero has conflicts with his father (see Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots). The good hearted Catholic priest, played with the tough love and blue humor that is needed by the always capable Fred Applegate is saddled with an unnecessary plot devise that will bring to mind the fate of a similar character in the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. Naturally the girl left behind had Gideon's son. (this is really not a spoiler as said teenage son appears very quickly in the first act). Collin Kelly Sordelet makes an impressive Broadway debut as both Young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom. Both characters are distinctive and the script fortunately does not contain any true melodrama about the son not knowing who is his real father.

Rachel Tucker is tough as nails as Meg, the girl left behind. A love triangle is created by adding the character of Arthur, a shipyard worker turned executive who has been steadily in both Meg and Tom's life. Aaron Lazar helps make Arthur a genuine good sensible man and father figure so that there is fortunately no detour into, once again, melodrama land when it comes to reuniting Meg and Gideon after all those years.

Michael Esper has the perfect voice for the wayward Gideon Fletcher. In many ways he sounds like composer Sting, although that may be the nature of how Sting wrote the music. Mr. Esper has a challenge in that his character is part prodigal part absolute jerk, yet by the end of the evening the character reaches a satisfactory redemption.

Sting has written a beautiful score. It ranges from the haunting themes "Island of Souls" and "Ghost Story" to the rousing "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" and "Mrs. Dees' Rant."  The score is served well by the earthy character driven choreography of Steven Hoggett who did a similar style for the musical Once. The scenic elements of David Zimm and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind are atmospheric and suit well the piece.

One wishes that only one writer had shaped the book of The Last Ship as tightening the plot holes would have made it a more seaworthy evening of theater.

The Last Ship is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or