Pondering the Merits of The River and its Place on Broadway

Moreso then most, I was incredibly excited to have Jez Butterworth back on Broadway. Contemporary writers that go the conceptual route in their writing are put on a bigger pedestal in the UK (from what I can tell), but in New York, they are typically sequestered to Off-Broadway or even Off Off-Broadway. After Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses sorta came and went last spring, I would have thought the “out there, thought-provoking” theatre on Broadway had reached its quota for some substantial period of time.

I mean, who wants to think when they go to the theatre? Bitch please.

Now, did Butterworth succeed with The River, which opened sunday night at the Circle in the Square Theatre? Depends on who you ask. The River can best be described as a small-scale, mysterious story where a passionate fisherman and his girlfriend are paying a visit to his cabin by the river. With each uninterrupted scene change though, a different woman emerges or re-emerges on to the stage, continuing right where the previous scene left off with no outright acknowledgement of the new woman (or what happened to the previous woman). The timeline is not explicitly defined, the characters are unnamed, some bits of dialogue repeat down the line and some character traits and discoveries carry over and impact future scenes and interactions. More often then not, I kept thinking, “WHAT is going ON?"

If this style of play is not your thing - and believe me, I totally understand - you might hate The River's very existence and get pissed at the misuse of Hugh Jackman’s charisma and talent (and good looks). Point blank, The River is not Jerusalem in the sense that…well, Jerusalem was such a plate of perfection that even if you don’t like what it is and where it was going, you can still perceive it for its strengths. That was the power of Butterworth’s detailed and immersive story (and Mark Rylance's stunning, world-class performance). 

But if you ask me - and I think you are, otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this - Butterworth nailed The River. I certainly don’t mind when playwrights foster ambiguity and more questions, no matter how tantalizing they can get, and I think it is an intriguing story that features some beautiful, poetic language.

Seriously, when Butterworth hits his stride writing-wise, it is a thing of glory. Long monologues and dialogues about sunsets, moonlight, trout, weather, seeing one’s reflection in the water…I’ll take most of it, even though some of it gets a little too indulgent for my taste. His character work is fascinating to me in that my interpretation of the male character continuously changes throughout and even approaches opposite extremes. As the fisherman speaks so emphatically about fishing and ignoring his girlfriend’s request to come view a sunset, are we supposed to perceive that as him choosing fishing over his romantic prospect(s)?

But wait, he says he loves her and he considers bringing her up to his cabin as a gesture reflecting that…is fishing just a placeholder until the right woman comes along and breaks through? What exactly is he looking for? When the fisherman's sketch of (one of) the woman is discovered, the face is scratched out. Is there some mal-intent brewing under the surface? Is he misogynistic and perceives women as monotonous and interchangeable? There are references to William Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and Ted Hughes…where does that fit into all of this? Are the women even real or is any of this even real or just illusions extending from the man’s mind or reflecting some innate desire of companionship amidst the solitary life of a fisherma- oh fuck it, you get the point. I eat this stuff up like a big bowl of rice pudding with whipped cream on top.

Also loved Ian Rickson’s direction. I mean, there was a wordless five-minute vignette of the fisherman slicing apart and cooking a fish his girlfriend caught and Rickson not only maintained my undivided attention, but he lured me into the story further. His oversight, combined with the dimly-lit, tonally dark, but weirdly beautiful set, lighting and sounds, create an off-the-charts suspense and grittiness. There is also Hugh Jackman going against type and doing a great job at reciting Butterworth’s words and embodying the outsider spirit. It also should be noted that without him, The River would probably not be produced on Broadway (if at all), so additional kudos to him for choosing a new play and an interesting one at that. Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo, as the two women, don’t have much to do other then serve as a tool for Jackman’s character, but I didn’t mind them.

It has its flaws, the story itself and this production. But The River, to me, would have established itself as a contender for Best Play had The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Disgraced - two of the most incredible shows to hit Broadway not just this season, but in my entire theatre-going life - had not debuted alongside it. New plays in the Beckett/Pinter mold are less frequent occurrences when compared to authors like, say, Chekov…so if we are going to have three or six Chekov-riffs a year, we are certainly entitled to one or two of the former. I imagine non-avid theatre-goers are getting a lot more then they bargain for when they see Hugh Jackman’s name above the marquee and nary a sight of gold lame pants or the steely bravado of Jean ValJean or Wolverine. But it is also one helluva crash course into a type of theatre that is in short supply, whether they know it or not. Jerusalem was my first Broadway play and a major door-opener for me, as my theatre roticon expanded to include a lot more unconventional plays. Even in a small theatre (capacity-wise), The River may be...I mean, hopefully, is having a similar effect.

Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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