Hugh Jackman’s charismatic, sinister and charming performance is the only reason to see Jez Butterworth’s delicate but thin play, The River, Butterworth’s next Broadway play after Jerusalem. Unlike Jerusalem, The River doesn’t have much story or much in way of a message, though in its form and structure it is a mystery. However, Jackman (in another role in which he is onstage almost throughout the play) commands our attention in a way few actors can and you can hear a pin drop at any moment during the 85 minute evening.
An unnamed man has brought an unnamed woman to his cabin in the woods for trout fishing on the once-in-a-year moonless night when the fish are plentiful. When he returns from their expedition to the river, she has gone missing and he frantically calls the police. She returns but it is not the same woman. They pick up where the first couple had left off. Ian Rickson, formerly artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre who has staged all six of Butterworth’s plays including the Broadway production of Jerusalem, has woven an undeniable spell.
Is this a previous encounter or a later one? Is the man a serial womanizer or a dangerous maniac? Is the second woman a dream figure or a fantasy? Is this an annual event that the man takes each of his girlfriends to his cabin in the woods on this special night of nights? Is this the way the man reels in his beloved? Is it all a mystery for its own sake? The play’s ending gives some clues but will not satisfy all theatergoers.
While the play includes rich poetic passages as well the presentation of poems by William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes, its message and theme remain obscure. Is the river (heard periodically in the sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph) an eternal metaphor? Is it about how all relationships start? Is fishing being used as an allegory of all human relationships? Is the play an exploration of solitude demonstrating that we are all ultimately alone? Considering how little we learn about the characters, the play finally seems thin and attenuated – much ado about nothing. Unlike Jerusalem which takes on the huge and topical theme of the state of Britain now, The River has no such agenda.
On one level, it is obvious why Jackman was attracted to this work for his second New York play and his fourth Broadway outing. The role is subtle and subdued, a very different challenge from his extroverted Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz, or from his muscular action movie roles. The River allows Jackman to make use of his quiet virility as well as the mysterious nature of the character. He moves like a professional athlete and we can’t take our eyes off of him. The play revolves around his role and we are continually trying to read his character. It is apparent why Jackman may just be the world’s most bankable stage and screen actor. The two actresses hold their own onstage but it is Jackman we watch at all times. On the other hand, Jackman must find something in the play most theatergoers won’t decipher, that remains hidden. It might have seemed more meaningful in a smaller theater without one of the world’s most famous actors in the leading role. When it is all over, it seems to be much less than the sum of its parts.
The two actresses could not be more different: Cush Jumbo with her British accent and Laura Donnelly (who created her role in the 2012 London Royal Court production) with an Irish inflection. However, because of information denied us, neither of them can bring any more to their roles than the author has given them. They are strong, take-charge women, but it is Jackman we follow whenever he is on stage. Rickson makes excellent use of Ultz’s setting on the three-quarter thrust stage of the Circle in the Square. Using the entire length of the stage as the cabin with the door to the bedroom at the far end, it never feels like the actors have their backs to us for any length of time. Ultz’s costumes are suitable for the setting and the characters, while Charles Balfour’s lighting provides little additional atmosphere. Stephen Warbeck is responsible for the eerie music heard between the scenes.
When you have Hugh Jackman in your cast, it probably doesn’t matter what critics say about the play. However, after Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth has become a major playwright in the English speaking world. Unlike that play, The River seems like minor stuff. However, you will not easily forget Jackman’s one of a kind performance.
The River (extended through February 8, 2015)
Royal Court Theatre Production
Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Ave., in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.theriveronbroadway.com
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission