By Tulis McCall
Well folks, this was a mighty hard slog. Misery – a story that started out as a novel by Stephen King and was successfully turned into a screenplay by William Goldman has been hollowed out – by the same William Goldman – and left with less substance than a cored apple. I have never read the novel, but I sure do remember the movie with Kathy Bates and James Cahn. I remember it so well that I will never watch it again. Too scary and too shattering.
This play, on the other hand, is neither. I am guessing that this has as much to do with the script as anything else. While Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf) prattles on about being the Numero-Uno fan of Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis), Mr. Sheldon does little more than ask simple mind-numbing questions like ,”Where am I?” The answer is simple – Paul you are the guest of Ms. Wilkes at her own private chateau where there is no phone service – her land line is not working and it is 1987 so no mobile. Your legs are busted and you are SOL. Period. The end. Mr. Goldman seems to be trying to modify his movie script to create a play. No can do. No can do. Just like you can’t alter a dress and call it new.
The other sad element that drags this production so far down that it barely has a pulse is the performance of Mr. Willis. Or lack thereof. Personally I am a huge fan of his movies. The stock unflinching demeanor. The throaty whisper that only gets above a hush when there is a bomb about to go off two feet away. The humor shown mostly in those twinkling eyes. I’m there. In this production, however, none of that is visible. Well, nothing is visible really. It is as if Mr. Willis were projecting for a camera. This would mean about as far as the front row. Or perhaps a little less.
Laurie Metcalf’s Annie, on the other hand, is wound tighter than a drum. When she learns that the last of his Misery series kills off the title character, she reacts with a violent streak that runs through her like an electrical current. No, no, no. That will not fly. And to make her point she has Sheldon burn the manuscript on which he has been working (she knows that he never has more than one copy when writing) and demands that he start in with resurrecting Misery in a new story. Not only is the character wound up, Ms. Metcalf gives a performance that is strong enough to drag Mr. Willis and the entire set along with her. It is heavy lifting indeed, and Metcalf need lets up.
Time passes – could be weeks or months, but it feels to the audience like years. Sheldon wheels around the house (a fantastic revolving set by David Korins) to suss out the situation. No phone. A helpful utensil or two. And as he does there is theme music playing. As if to remind us that this story was once a movie. Theme music? For a play? Can you even do that? Anyway, the music serves only to dilute what little tension there is in this story.
Every trick that Paul tries backfires on him until Annie is forced to take a mallet to his ankles. The entire audience winces in unison. The set revolves back and forth to accommodate the local Sheriff Buster (Leon Addison Brown) who seems to appear in order to allow Mr. Willis time for costume/dressing/bandage changes that number at least a dozen.
In the end all is supposed to be right with the world because Paul has learned the hard way what it means to be a writer dedicated to his characters. He learned that from his captor who, though she had bats in her belfry, never stopped ringing Paul’s chimes. In life and in death. By the time Paul discloses his appreciation, however, the rest of us, who didn’t come to the theatre to see a movie star, are anxious to escape our own imprisonment. The last speech flatlines, and we bolt for the doors. Holy Jeese Louise.
MISERY – Written by William Goldman; Based on the novel by Stephen King; Directed by Will Frears
WITH Bruce Willis as Paul Sheldon, Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes
Set By David Korins, Costumes by Ann Roth, Lighting by David Weiner.
Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures in association with Castle Rock Entertainment, Producers.
“Misery” runs through Feb. 14 at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, miserybroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.