It’s obvious that a few people working on Broadway today never saw Alfred Hitchcock‘s film “Rope.” Or they saw it and didn’t learn the lesson of that 1948 failure by the master of suspense.
Watching Bruce Willis move around in his wheelchair in “Misery,” which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre, is like watching “Rope,” a film made in very long takes with next to no editing. Where’s the suspense as Willis, in his Broadway debut, glides from room to room in David Korins’s magnificent country house of a set, trying to outsmart his captor, a demented fan named Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf)? For his first tour of the house, it’s mildly intriguing to watch Willis maneuver around as the set rotates and he almost veers off the stage at one point. The second tour is much less interesting. And never is it suspenseful. Shouldn’t there be cuts to Metcalf in a car as she races home to inflict further pain on her idol, a best-selling novelist?
Of course, there are no cuts. It’s a play! And that’s just one of the major problems with William Goldman’s stage adaptation of Stephen King‘s 1987 best-seller, which became a successful 1990 movie scripted by Goldman. Korins’s turntable set keeps spinning around and around as Willis and Metcalf play crazy cat and injured mouse, but there’s no suspense. Film is a much more manipulative medium than the theater, where there are no zooms or cuts or close-ups to direct our attention. Sitting through this “Misery,” I kept watching the fake snow on stage “melt” when I should have been riveted by the performances.
What “Misery” on stage has going for it is a couple of Grand Guignol effects that are great, grizzly fun. In this one respect, the play has it over the movie. On film, violence is violence. In the theater, it can be riotous, and we laugh because the stage craft, if done well, fools us. How do they get Willis’s feet to contort so much when Metcalf take a sledgehammer to them? How do they get her forehead to gush blood when he slugs her with a typewriter? It’s shocking, but a second later it’s hilarious.
A few seasons back, Martin McDonagh and director Wilson Milam offered up 45 minutes of continuous violence in act two of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” It was a blood bath of gunfire pyrotechnics that had the actors slipping and sliding in red sauce, and the audience didn’t stop laughing until the curtain came down.
Frankly, this “Misery” doesn’t have enough over-the-top physical torture and mayhem to relieve its long spells of tedium. For the play’s first half, Metcalf makes a terrific Annie, but Goldman’s script doesn’t give her any new notes of dementia to hit in the second half. It’s at the drama’s halfway point that Willis’s writer is supposed to show us his creative chops and outwit the mad woman of Silver Creek, Colorado. Willis gives a credible performance, but as a stage actor he doesn’t show much invention or variety.
Will Frears is credited as the director.