For those turned on to Butterworth by 2011's Jerusalem, the new work clearly continues his fascination with self-destructive outsiders in pastoral isolation. The River may lack the Rabelaisian exuberance of Jerusalem but offers more intimacy and outright strangeness. Those attending simply to ogle Jackman (buff and charismatic as always) get an extra treat, if they can appreciate it: a movie star facing an acting challenge in an exceptional piece of stage writing.
THE RIVER Broadway Reviews
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Rather than offering practical explanations or clear timelines, The River keeps returning and reconfiguring the same handful of subjects and themes - love, truth, loss, fish. There's also a brief cookery demonstration. Some will find this frustrating, even the cookery part. (That fish looks delicious. Why can't Jackman share?) But if you can live with ambiguity - and with Jackman's doughty faith in his own charm - you may find The River's insistence on ambiguity strangely vitalising. Just when you think you've closed in a solution, it slips through your fingers and swims effortlessly away.
If anyone's ever earned the right to star in a play as a character called-simply-The Man, it is Hugh Jackman. In Jez Butterworth's The River, a mind-bending, occasionally precious, always tense chamber drama, the star wears that moniker proudly... The tightly-concealed intentions of The River are bound to make some audience members want to jump ship almost immediately, especially since this once-modest play has been wrought larger, going from a 93-seat theater in London to a 776-seat, but still relatively intimate, Broadway house. And that change often results in small moments ballooning unsteadily into bigger ones. But director Ian Rickson never skimps on the play's curdling, spare dread, and gets first-rate work from his actors...
There is something poignant and daring about Hugh Jackman as he triumphantly challenges both his action-movie and flamboyant-Broadway fan bases in "The River." The three-character drama is emotionally exposed and intensely inconclusive -- a poetic, lusty puzzle that rivets one moment, exasperates another, and is destined to keep theatergoers arguing about its meaning all the way home, if not all season.
Hugh Jackman is electrifying in The River, a concentrated, mysterious fish tale of a play. Seeing him onstage in one of Broadway's most intimate theaters confers a sense of privilege upon the audience something akin to having Mick Jagger show up at your cocktail party just to shoot the breeze. You may not believe your luck. Forget the fact that he is too old by a decade or more to be playing a bachelor whose secluded cabin in the woods above a riverbank appears to be date bait for attractive younger women. That fact merely adds another layer of meaning (or confusion, depending on your receptiveness to such matters) to Jez Butterworth's new play, a hairpin turn away from his last Broadway outing, the sensationally funny, wildly overpopulated, anti-capitalist Jerusalem.
Heraclitus once said it, and it was even seconded by Pocahontas in the eponymous Disney film: "No man ever steps in the same river twice." The sentiment, the Greek philosopher argued, alludes to the idea of ever-present change in the universe-the always-moving river. Some people, of course, aren't so comfortable with change. The Man, I think it's safe to acknowledge, is one of them.
Each of the actresses (if you're wondering, Cush Jumbo - her real name - is an attractive young Englishwoman) does this very well, but it's Jackman's character, sometimes intense, other times oddly remote, who fascinates us. The actor gives a strong, yet beguilingly subtle, portrayal of a man whose life has become an endless loop. There's a final surprise in "The River," which is startling and feels completely right. It's a moment that's deeply revealing - or so it seems.
Jackman's performance is credible, which is an immense accomplishment considering the perky twin cheerleaders, Jumbo and Donnelly, who play his love interests here, under Ian Rickson's direction. Their portentous talk weighs down the fragile twist in the story, and in the end, the never-resolved mystery isn't so much ambiguous as it is "trickery," Butterworth's word for the art of fly-fishing.
"The River" is conducted in a more minor key, and is also a more minor effort. Like "Jerusalem," this cryptic tale of a man and a woman (or women - maybe) magnifies the seemingly ordinary to mythic proportions, while honorably refusing to stoop to easy explanations. The director Ian Rickson, who brought such clarity and vitality to "Jerusalem," lends the same care and polish to the far more shadowy "River." This artfully staged production, set in a rural fishing cabin that is one man's insular kingdom, is guaranteed to hold your attention. But you're likely to leave it feeling hungry, and not just because it aims to mystify. Be grateful, then, that any pangs of emptiness are counterbalanced by the intriguing heft of Mr. Jackman's strangely radiant opacity.
But nothing beats Jez Butterworth's new play The River for manliness: It's got Hugh Jackman, Wolverine himself, romancing some ladies and gutting a trout. Whether manliness is next to goodliness is a different question, one the play itself - riveting, troubling, thought-provoking, unsatisfying - struggles to embody and never really answers. Jackman, who alternates between camp and murk in his Broadway appearances, is nothing if not ambitious... So all credit to Jackman for making a difficult, highbrow work - the kind that namechecks Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, and Yeats but does not name its characters - commercially viable.
The 85-minute play falls somewhere between thriller and love story, without being sufficiently filling as either; the plot keeps its numerous secrets so close to the vest that it never manages to tantalize, and its characters are too cold to develop feelings for. Jackman's character, identified only as The Man, is a robust fishing enthusiast who can't seem to land the woman of his dreams - if such a woman exists. The atmosphere of "The River" is all. Director Ian Rickson, in concert with set designer Ultz, conjures the rustic interior of The Man's fishing retreat as dark and earthy - hauntingly beautiful, perhaps haunted. Butterworth's overwrought language, by contrast, draws too much breathless attention to itself.
As in his 2008 Off-Broadway play about marital mystery, "Parlour Song," Butterworth displays a gift for moody atmospherics here. Scenes can sometimes go slack, like during rhapsodic arias about fishing. Director Ian Rickson, the author's longtime collaborator, showcases the play with a quiet, intimate staging. The audience is just a few feet from the cast, which include the very fine Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly. But the show is all about Jackman. His sturdy star turn is manly, measured and speckled with melancholy. Without him, "The River" is a play that could flow by in a small Off-Broadway theater and not make much of a ripple.
The lighting (by UK designer Charles Balfour) is subtly seductive, and the ever-inventive sound maven Ian Dickinson (of the Autograph design team), who also did the fancy work on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and "Jerusalem," has invented a symphony of provocative night sounds that sustains the mood of the play from beginning to end, even when the human voices start to grate on the ear. Things start to go south when the Woman opens her mouth to reveal a shallow, rather silly character who gains no stature from Jumbo's perky performance. And while Jackman puts heart and soul into Butterworth's mystical meditations on the spiritual properties of trout fishing (even as he efficiently guts and cooks a very real fish on stage), fishing is still fishing and after a while you feel the urge to throw these fishy speeches back into the water.
But the characters aren't simply anonymous - they're ciphers. As distinctive as the actors are individually (Jumbo has a fierceness, Donnelly a stridency), there's an impersonal quality to their portrayals that makes the relationships hard to credit. Jackman, whose electric aura challenges our acceptance of him as an ordinary bloke, is all concentrated modesty. But the character of this man, a narcissist with a game face, ultimately seems less real than the dead fish he prepares and consumes before our eyes. Those feeling cheated for having paid $175 for a ticket to this barely 90-minute sketch can tell themselves they've shared a meal with Wolverine.
Boldness is not, unfortunately, a quality that distinguishes the play overall. For all its sensual, lyrical language and movement, River generates a chilliness that this stark, intimate production, directed by Ian Rickson, reinforces. There is much talk of the vastness and eternal quality of nature, things that Butterworth's writing can evoke with robust beauty.
Broadway audiences would gladly drink in the enormously appealing Jackman the song-and-dance man in perpetuity, just as movie-goers keep flocking to his Wolverine. To his credit, he wants to explore other worlds. But he has not found a way to convey effectively The Man's frustration at not finding the all-enveloping love he professes to cherish. Watching him towards the end of The River, when the pain of reality sets in, I kept wishing I were glimpsing his face in close-up: the anguish would have been much clearer. The too-capacious venue is more ocean than river, and the emotional impact suffers.
Jackman himself is earnest and slightly flabbergasted as his character's narrative and memory gradually crack, but lacks any real slipperiness, making him more a victim of circumstance than a man complicit in his past tales. The actor's natural sweetness shines through when what we really want to see is the rogue. The role may get more mileage from a wolf, not a Wolverine. Butterworth's voice is always welcome and he returns with a pretty, less bombastic script than "Jerusalem," though one with gorgeous turns of phrase. (A fish is "like a bar of precious metal. Like God's tongue.") He has a knack for dialogue between two people testing each other and his recurring love of fearsome nature - "There are monsters out there. Huge monsters," the fisherman warns about the fish - is darkly romantic.
English playwright Jez Butterworth gave himself a tough act to follow with 2009's Jerusalem... The River, a lyrical chamber piece that runs just 85 minutes, shares certain elements with the earlier play, notably a ruggedly masculine protagonist, a bucolic setting and a dual fascination with nature and myth. But despite the considerable charisma and commitment of its outsize star, Hugh Jackman, this new work is a sliver of a mood piece that never tightens its grip.
If "The River" was playing some dinky little theater with a bunch of unknowns, it'd be dismissed as flimsy and gimmicky. Yet the above description still applies: This show is overreaching and underachieving, its hollow pretentiousness even more glaring under the bright Broadway lights. Playwright Jez Butterworth's previous effort, the Tony-nominated "Jerusalem," was overrated, but compared to this, it's a masterpiece. At least Ian Rickson's production - he also directed the London premiere, starring Dominic West ("The Affair") - looks good. Ultz's rustic set and Ian Dickinson's elaborate sound design make the most of the Circle in the Square's in-the-round design, taking us to a lived-in cabin by a babbling brook.
Hugh Jackman deserves a lot of credit for returning to the New York stage in "The River," a new work by the little-known English playwright Jez Butterworth ("Jerusalem"), considering that most major film stars come to Broadway in revivals of fail-proof, classic dramas (i.e. Denzel Washington in "A Raisin in the Sun," Scarlett Johansson in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"). "The River" is, instead, a quiet, elusive drama with little mainstream appeal.
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