Maybe Britain’s Jez Butterworth isn’t very familiar with America’s “The Twilight Zone,” but his play “The River,” which opened Sunday at Circle in the Square and had its world premiere two year ago at London’s Royal Court, is the kind of thing that Rod Serling cranked out on a weekly basis back in the early 1960s. Those TV episodes ran a taut 30 minutes, but the CBS series failed when its creators tried to expand the show to a full hour in 1964. The twist needed to arrive at the 25-minute mark.
“The River” runs 85 minutes, and there is a rather grizzly revelation that helps to keep the momentum going in the final half hour. But frankly, that revelation isn’t much more disturbing than one of Joan Crawford’s lesser offenses in “Mommie Dearest.”
Don’t worry: That revelation, as well as the twist, will not be revealed here. Let’s just say that two women (Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly), who are never seen on stage together, appear to be sharing a cabin with a fly-fishing aficionado (Hugh Jackman). Through the course of the play, a bizarre pattern in the relationships is established. The women voice surprise that others of their sex may have preceded them in the cabin, which is odd, because the man is single, hetero, about 40 years old, and looks like
Butterworth titles his play “The River,” but “The Recyler” is more apt. The characters reminisce. There’s endless talk about reflection and, yes, recycling. One long speech has a woman musing on how the water in her big bowl has been on earth for a very long time, having been recycled endlessly in rainwater, rivers, the faucet, and into her hands. Profound.
Fly-fishing, of course, is a metaphor. The man’s memories of catching his first fish are repeated in the woman’s words when, later in the play, she describes having sex with him. He takes this as a compliment.
Speaking of sex, there’s little heat on the Circle in the Square stage. Despite his Wolverine cred and his notable pecs (well-packaged by costume designer Ultz), Jackman is a very lyrical actor and rather studied in his approach. There’s no sexual threat. He’s not animalistic in the mold of Daniel Craig or Dominic West, who originated “the man” role in London.
But Jackman’s performance is credible, which is an immense accomplishment considering the perky twin cheerleaders, Jumbo and Donnelly, who play his love interests here, under Ian Rickson’s direction.
Their portentous talk weighs down the fragile twist in the story, and in the end, the never-resolved mystery isn’t so much ambiguous as it is “trickery,” Butterworth’s word for the art of fly-fishing.