'Misery': Theater Review

Reheated popcorn.
2/14/2016

Bruce Willis stars as the romance writer held prisoner by Laurie Metcalf as his No. 1 fan in William Goldman's stage adaptation of the Stephen King thriller.

Anyone who saw Rob Reiner's 1990 film of Stephen King's Misery — and isn’t that everyone? — will recall the shocker of a scene in which Kathy Bates "hobbles" James Caan with a sledgehammer. That means most of the audience for this stage adaptation is already wincing in anticipation, well before the marvelous Laurie Metcalf, as psycho-fan Annie Wilkes, coos her bedside reassurance: "Darling, relax ... I'm a trained nurse." Gasps of horror and nervous laughter follow as she reduces the ankles of her favorite author to mush. Ouch. While some nifty theater tricks are employed to execute that grisly display of American Gothic, the production is mostly content to recycle, rather than reconceive, the material for a different medium.

Thanks largely to the wacko humor infused throughout Metcalf's diabolically folksy performance, and to the ingeniousness of David Korins' revolving set — which invites us to follow the action from room to room exactly like a camera — this Misery is an enjoyable enough effort to recapture some of its predecessor's B-movie pleasures. But there's a strong whiff of cynicism about the enterprise. Virtually from the start, the suspicion takes root that the only reason it exists is because Warner Bros. and screenwriter William Goldman — who has adapted the work as a stage play with minimal invention — figured there were still a few more bucks to be milked out of a popular commercial property. The show's healthy grosses during previews suggest their instincts were right, though the result does little to advance the art of the Broadway play.

It's news to nobody that the key to selling repackaged product on Broadway is to stick a marquee name in a lead role. In this case, that's Bruce Willis as bestselling romantic potboiler author Paul Sheldon, who is saved during a winter blizzard from a near-fatal car accident by Annie, and then held captive with two broken legs in her isolated cottage in snowbound rural Colorado.

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Returning to the stage after three decades of film work, Willis acquits himself respectably so long as the role remains mostly reactive. But as John McClane — sorry, I mean Paul — regains his strength and resourcefulness, the actor's familiar screen persona of the smug tough guy kicks in, making it seem as if he's in on the joke and undercutting any real sense of danger. His non-characterization fails to convey any discernible traits of a writer, let alone an author of historical pulp desperate to liberate his inner literary genius. And in the deadly book-tour speech with which his character closes the play, Willis seems more disengaged than haunted by Paul's harrowing experience. Audiences who shell out to see a movie star may be satisfied; anyone hoping for a nuanced performance, not so much.

Given its primary setting in a bedroom that becomes a prison cell, King's story in theory lends itself to a theatrical retelling. (A different adaptation, written by Simon Moore and starring Sharon Gless as Annie Wilkes, was staged in London two years after the film.) But Goldman clearly thinks more like a screenwriter than a stage dramatist, and director Will Frears follows suit in a production that drags even at 95 minutes.

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The staging retains a distinctly cinematic imprint, right down to David Weiner's moody lighting and composer Michael Friedman's movie-ish score, with its steady build of fretful strings. Those elements would be effective if the writing had the theatrical vitality to enable it to stand on its own, rather than just feeling like an old script that's been dusted off, tweaked and repurposed.

While the story's familiarity means it's neither scary nor suspenseful, the play works surprisingly well in its more Hitchcockian scenes, as Paul sneaks out of his bedroom in a wheelchair to investigate the rest of the house during Annie's brief absences. Korins' set, which is full of amusing, kitschy details, turns slowly to allow us to travel with the prisoner, at the same time keeping an eye out for his captor's return. Later, also, when the friendly local sheriff (Leon Addison Brown, solid in a small role) gains entry to the house and persists in his questioning, the movement from room to room ups the tension significantly.

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Elsewhere, however, the sole element to acquire unique theatrical dimensions is Metcalf, who looks to be having a blast as Paul's "number one fan." Goldman appears more interested in simply spinning a good old-fashioned yarn than attempting any kind of comment on the perils of celebrity in an age of disintegrating barriers, where fans feel entitled to full access — or at least a selfie with their idols. (The play remains set in 1987.) But as far as unhinged stalkers go, Metcalf's Annie is a hoot, even if she's going to need a good chiropractor after carrying this show on her back seven times a week.

Part of what makes the character so memorable — both here and in Kathy Bates' indelible screen incarnation — is her deranged, but in her own mind absolutely legitimate, proprietorial claim over Paul's creative output. However, there's also something almost touching about the delusional fantasies of her coquettish flirtation and girlish swooning. ("Oh, this house is going to be filled with romance! I'm going to play all my Liberace records for us!") Her appearance for an intimate celebratory dinner with Paul, wearing an Alice band and a ridiculous prim dress that belonged to her mother (kudos to costumer Ann Roth), suggests a whole sad history for this lonely, angry woman.

Of course she's the most fun when that anger erupts, and Metcalf is at her best with a clenched jaw and a peevish tone of voice, sprinkling lighter fluid over Paul's bedclothes as a threat, or slamming a pack of typing paper down hard on his banged-up knee. When she cocks a rifle, you almost want to cheer as you shudder. It's just too bad nothing else in this rote retread comes close to the unpredictable energy of Annie's almighty insanity.

Cast: Bruce Willis, Laurie Metcalf, Leon Addison Brown
Director: Will Frears
Playwright: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music: Michael Friedman
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Fight directors: Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Producers: Liz Glotzer, Mark Kaufman, Martin Shafer, Raymond Wu
Presented by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, in association with Castle Rock Entertainment

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