New York City Theater
Circle in the Square Theater
Note to self: Avoid ichthyological references. Do not say “The River,” a tale of men, women and fish, should be let off the hook or is neither fish nor fowl or should be thrown back from whence it came. Better to come right out with it and use other clichés, like it’s the emperor’s new clothes or there’s less here than meets the eye.
If it weren’t for the deserved star quality – and muscles -- of its leading man, Hugh Jackman, Jez Butterworth’s “The River” might engender zero interest. Oh, yes, the acting is fine, the set is evocative, the sound suitably eerie, the lighting mercurial, the costumes significant. But shouldn’t there be a drama somewhere? Instead, we get a teeny tiny story all dressed up with poetry and nowhere to go.
In a gloomy cabin by the sea, The Man (for so he’s identified) shares time with The Woman, a lively, amusing gal more interested in the sunset than going fishing, which is what The Man wants to do.
Apparently, The Woman is not the first, nor will be the last, to spend time with our hunk. When she exits, enter The Other Woman, the subject of a drawing The Man had made sometime in the past. This character’s encounter with rod and reel differs from the first woman’s.
There’s a last-minute surprise in the play that won’t be revealed here. After all, “The River” is billed as some sort of mystery. Butterworth, who wrote the generally admired “Jerusalem” a few years ago, has here imbued a romance tale into one supposedly dripping with meaning, complete with quotations from Yeats. (“Though I am old and wandering . . . / I will find out where she has gone.”)
Maybe the fish is a metaphor for the passage to death (“gut, clean, dress, cook”). Maybe it has to do with recapturing youth and vigor. (In describing fishing for sea trout, The Man says, “It’s like catching a lightning bolt.”)
Then, too, maybe we’re in metaphysical country. “One minute it was in its world,” says The Other Woman of a caught fish. “And now it’s in ours.” Or The Man: “There it is. Flopping. Brown. Silver. Orange. Like a bar of precious metal. Like God’s tongue.”
Under Ian Rickson’s fittingly moody direction, Jackman plunges into the language, keeping shards of the puzzle intact. It’s an energetic, minutely thought-out performance. He’s a powerful presence, exuding sensuality, in addition to being able to gut, clean, dress and cook a fish on a par with the most skillful of chefs. Cush Jumbo is amusing and sexy as The Woman, while Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman is glamorous and seductive.
“The River” wants to deal with eternals: love, food, nature, birds, animals and, of course, fish. Here one minute, gone the next. Just like life. Just like this play.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 19, 2014