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BWW Review: Laurie Metcalf's Brilliance Turns MISERY From Thriller To Fascinating Character Study


Since coming to Broadway after winning three Emmy Awards for playing the low self-esteemed Jackie in ROSEANNE, Laurie Metcalf has yet to strike a false note in her rich and diverse collection of stage portrayals; among them the activist speechwriter in David Mamet's NOVEMBER, the sacrificing matriarch in Neil Simon's BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS and, most astonishing, the brilliant neurologist battling her own dementia in Sharr White's THE OTHER PLACE.

Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It's her unbending commitment to honesty, even in the most heightened of melodramatic situations, that drives director Will Frears' marvelously entertaining production of William Goldman's play based on novelist Stephen King's Misery.

Yes, she shares the stage with another star for most of the ninety minute performance, but from beginning to end, the night belongs to Metcalf's lonely, mentally unstable Annie Wilkes, who, in her mind, is valiantly trying to save the life of the fictional character who provides her with one of the few joys in her life.

The play begins with celebrated novelist Paul Sheldon waking up after four days of unconsciousness in Annie's guest bedroom. While she didn't cause the car accident that nearly took his life, the former nurse's presence at the scene wasn't mere coincidence. As his self-proclaimed number one fan, she knew that the superstitious Paul was close to finishing his next novel, and that for luck he always finished his new books in a Colorado hotel near Annie's secluded mountain town.

With the roads blocked by snow and phone lines down, Annie assures Paul that he's safe, despite severe injuries to his legs. She's thrilled to have the author of the series of best-selling romance novels featuring the character of Misery Chastain in her home, unaware that Paul, feeling artistically trapped by the commercial success of the series, has killed the character in his newly released book. When she does find out, with no one else aware of the author's location and fearing he may be dead, she takes it upon herself to make sure he writes a new novel that will somehow bring Misery back to life.

The 1990 film version of Misery, for which Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Academy Award, has made the story a part of our pop culture and the aftermath of the movie's success has turned the phrase "number one fan" into a familiar punch line. Audience members coming to see Misery on Broadway are likely to be at least familiar with the gory details of the plot and will be coming to see "how they do it" rather than being surprised by what happens. Familiar moments may invoke laughter and cheers, but the stage version works as more of a character study than a thriller. The plot is streamlined with the focus on Metcalf's realistic portrayal of a passionate fan and the play becomes a commentary on a public that prefers its artists to keep delivering the same comfort food instead of satisfying themselves with new visions.

Bruce Willis (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Bruce Willis makes his Broadway debut as Paul, a role that his pretty much regulated to reacting to Annie. He's fine, but not especially interesting. Leon Addison Brown does good work in the small role of a friendly sheriff, whose presence informs Annie of what the authorities believe about Paul's disappearance.

Aside from Metcalf, the other star of the evening is set designer David Korins, who places fully detailed depictions of Annie's guest room, kitchen and living room, as well as her house's exterior, on a carousel, allowing scenes to easily move from one location to another without stopping.

MISERY on Broadway is a bit of tasty popcorn elevated to high art by an exceptional stage actor. You may leave the theatre thinking of yourself as Laurie Metcalf's number one fan.

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