Would someone please give Laurie Metcalf a Tony Award? Not necessarily for her current Broadway performance (more on that later), but for her gracious ability to contrast what is quite possibly one of the worst performances being delivered on Broadway in recent memory. I’m speaking of Bruce Willis, the usually charismatic personality from the Die Hard movie franchise and television’s Moonlighting. Personally, Willis has always been a benign actor. While likable enough, I honestly never put that much thought into his work (and I’m sure after this review, he won’t be thinking much of mine either). So I was unable to make a distinction on his depth as a performer, at least until I saw him in his Broadway debut. As the “star”-and I use that term incredibly loosely-of William Goldman’s stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery–Willis is displaying such an immense talent for non-acting that one must wonder if audiences are watching a cardboard cut-out.
Willis unsuccessfully tackles the role of Paul Sheldon, a successful novelist who pens period novels based on the character of Misery Chastain. Upon finishing his final book, Sheldon jumps in his car during an imminent snow storm, accidentally drives off the road and lands in a snow bank. He is pulled to safety by his “number one fan” named Annie Wilkes (Metcalf). Wilkes, a former nurse, is quite simply psychotic. At first she is elated that she’s rescued Sheldon, but when she reads the latest installment of his Misery series and learns that the author killed off his subject, she grows increasingly erratic and dangerous. With broken bones and a body rife with pain, Sheldon has nothing to do but lie bedridden in Wilke’s farmhouse and await the long promised, but never realized help to arrive. It’s a similar experience sitting at the Broadhurst theater for ninety minutes; You want to be rescued from this dreck but only when the curtain falls will redemption come.
With Willis as her foil, Metcalf is mounting an all-out Herculean effort to inject this show with life. Wisely, she has chosen not to turn it into a Kathy Bates imitation. Audiences who have an affinity towards the 1990 film may recall that Bates took home the Oscar that year. She was an imposing figure with a purposefully homely appearance that toggled between motherly nurturing and dangerous killer. Metcalf is significantly more sleight and while her Annie Wilkes still dresses like a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, she comes across as more cool and nonchalant. Metcalf is a true stage professional, having graced the stages of Broadway and Chicago’s esteemd Steppenwolf Theatre. This time around, she is saddled with an unfortunate co-star who depicts a brutal ankle breaking with scarcely a mild groan. During early previews, it was reported that Willis hadn’t learned his lines and was relying on an earpiece-It’s ashame he wasn’t relying more on Lee Strasberg for technique.
Yet here are the real problems with the stage version of Misery: It just doesn’t work. To begin with, too much time has elapsed between the release of the film and the stage treatment. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the movie’s debut and by now, most fans of the thriller genre have seen it-multiple times. It’s also not the proper medium for the story. What made Rob Reiner’s film so compelling were the camera angles, facial close-ups, and lighting. One could feel the stifling confinement that protagonist Paul Sheldon (played with actual conviction by James Caan) endured. David Korins has created an impressive stage set which includes a 360 degree turntable of Bates’ farmhouse, but it feels too expansive.
And although Metcalf tries to put her own stamp on the role, Bates oscar winning performance has become too ingrained into the fabric of pop culture, thus making it hard to separate the two.
What this production boils down to rests in the power of the mighty dollar. Warner Brothers Theater Ventures, who produced this, decided that they would rehash a popular story, plug in two stars, hire a talented press agency and marketing firm, sit back and collect their dough. How right they were! It appears that Misery does love company afterall. In spite of bad press, the houses have been packed. Critics be damned! But the real horror for anyone who actually appreciates quality theater turns out not to be Annie Wilkes diabolical mind; it’s the feeling you’ll have after walking out of this shameless garbage, having just blown $170 a piece on a ticket.
Misery is playing a limited (although not limited enough) run through Februray 14 2016 at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th between 8th and Broadway. For tickets and info, click here. Or not.