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

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