Seeing The River reminds me that I am annoyed at Sting. Because now I am annoyed at Hugh Jackman for pretty much the same reason. Out of all the cockamamie whats-it’s in the world, these two gents have chosen to be represented by work that is not reflective of their many gifts. Sting handed over the book of his musical to people who did not deliver the goods. With The River Jackman has placed himself in a play that lacks a plot, not to mention dots to connect.
I am pretty certain there will be some fancy schmancy reviewer who is going to come along and explain what the heck Jez Butterworth was trying to do in writing The River. That review I cannot wait to read. But for me and the majority of the audience on the night I attended, that question remained a mystery and the event a disappointment. See if you can figure this one out…. And be advised this is one big spoiler alert.
In a cabin on some cliffs above a river, it is about to be a moonless night. The Man (Hugh Jackman) prepares to go forth and meet his trout. It is a glorious thing he is about to do. He will catch the electricity of life on the other end of his line. He will hook his fish and in doing so be directly connected to its life force just before he snuffs it out with one whack to the fish’s noggin. The Man wants The Woman (Cush Jumbo) to come with him. But she, still suffering a bit from his refusal to look at the sunset she wanted to share, does not like fishing and protests mightily.
Fast forward. Later that night, The Man is back at the cabin calling emergency services because The Woman has gone missing.
Enter the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) and we sort of start all over again. Well, not ALL over. This Other Woman seems indeed to be the person that The Man misplaced, and explains that she got bored and decided to walk a bit. Turns out that she was up river with another man, a local bloke who helped her land – wait for it – a three pound trout which she presents to The Man who is fish-less. After much bandying about she reveals that not only did she land the fish easily, she did so after the stranger chucked the custom lure that The Man had lent her and replaced it with a Gummy Bear. A yellow one. This is almost worse than his being a poacher on this private stretch of river. The Other Woman leaves to take a shower and The Man prepares the fish. Jackman reveals some fancy kitchen skills, and the preparations rival anything on the Cooking Channel. Once the fish has been delivered to the oven you will never guess who returns. That’s right! The Woman! She chats about the shower, they devour the fish and Jackman tells the tale of his first catch. They share intimacies, and tread that delicate patch of thin ice when who said what to whom and in what order is important.
The Man wants to show The Woman a treasure that he has in the bedroom, in a hat box under the bed, under a pile of papers (got that?), but instead of going into the bedroom himself, he send The Woman in.
You will never believe who emerges from the bedroom.
OMG you are right! The Other Woman! By this time we are not surprised. We are, however, not catching on to this MO at all. You can feel the audience collectively hauling out white flags and laying them on the ground. We surrender and wait out the tale. It is all we can do.
Ian Rickson has done a fine job trying to pull this together. The performances are fluid and for the most part very rich indeed. Jumbo handles her role as a hopeful but gun shy woman with a delicate hand. Donnelly gives her character just the right touch of gravitas. Jackman, on the other hand, never fully lets go of being a performer. He is charismatic as all get out, but not for one second do you forget who you are watching. He never reaches a visible intimacy with his character long enough for the performer to disappear completely.
Which brings me back to my point. Many of the folks coming to see The River are coming for one reason only – Mr. Jackman. Being near a star (thanks to the very fine set design by Ultz we are up close and personal) is too exciting an opportunity to pass up. Same deal with The Last Ship (in this case it is the promise of music that pulls us in.) We trust our icons’ judgment. That is why they are our heroes. Ergo, if Sting is involved in a musical or Jackman in a play, people reason, it must be worth going to see. Otherwise they would not be involved. Right?
Not always, friends.
At least when my chum and I left The Last Ship we could shout out to a passerby who asked our opinion, “Loved the music, hated the book!” And we had some pretty terrific laughs at the local watering hole. Leaving The River, I found myself merely one of the many, many bewildered, shaking my head and speechless.
By Jez Butterworth; directed by Ian Rickson
WITH: Hugh Jackman (the Man), Laura Donnelly (the Other Woman) and Cush Jumbo (the Woman).
Designed by Ultz; lighting by Charles Balfour; sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph; music by Stephen Warbeck; production manager, Aurora Productions; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro; general manager, United States, Bespoke Theatricals; general manager, Britain, Sonia Friedman Productions; associate producers, JFL Theatricals and 1001 Nights. A Royal Court Theater production, presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Colin Callender, Scott Landis and Tuchin Bartner Productions. At the Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway, at 50th Street, 212-239-6200, theriveronbroadway.com. Through Jan. 25. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.