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The River

3196 (600×600)
Hugh Jackman as The Man in THE RIVER, a new play by
Jes Butterworth
, directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theater
(50th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue).
© Richard Termine

                      by David Schultz

What can the typical theatergoer expect when seeing the new play entitled  The River ? That’s presuming one can snag a seat for this hotly desired play. It features actor Hugh Jackman in the lead role. Lets check off a few boxes and see what is in store. Vivid poetic riffs on fly-fishing. Check. Characters entitled “The Woman”, “The Man” and “The Other Woman”. Check.  An atmospheric, cabin in the woods near a lake. Check.  Vegetables sliced and diced, gutting a dead Fish, Cooking And Eating It.  Check. A Mystery Wrapped Up In An Enigma. Check. A non-linear fragmented style of writing. Check.

Hugh Jackman as The Man, Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jes Butterworth,
directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theater (50th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue).
© Richard Termine

I hope I haven’t lost you yet, but this new work by Jez Butterworth is all that and more. The Man, a sexy fisherman (vividly portrayed by Mr. Jackman), has brought a potential romantic partner AKA The Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his rustic cabin in the woods. It’s close to his boyhood lake and he has plans to share his fishing expertise with her, before he beds her down, natch. They flirt and have equally awkward moments, this being a first date, and not knowing where the evening may lead. The atmospheric lighting darkens and the scene shifts to the couple fishing in the midnight hour by the lake. Suddenly The Woman disappears and The Man desperate to locate her seems to have lost her in the rocky cliffs near the lake.

Hugh Jackman as The Man, Cush Jumbo as The Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jes Butterworth,
directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theater (50th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue).
© Richard Termine

A scene shift, hours later, she reappears at the cabin with a huge trout under her arm. Unlikely it seems, this being her first attempt at fishing. So far the play has moved along in a slow, methodical manner. The Woman retires to the bedroom to shower and change clothes and shortly thereafter returns to the living room.  But who enters the room? Why The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), this is the same woman who just returned from the shower a moment ago. Or is it?  The continuous repartee and relationship that has transpired in the previous scenes commences as if nothing has changed. The Man does not notice any difference between the two women.  This female transference occurs throughout the play. Every few scenes the “Woman”, and her “Other” flip back and forth. Mr. Butterworth is up to something of course. For the savvy theatergoer it is easy to see where he is heading.

Both actresses bring distinctly different personalities to their roles, Ms. Jumbo essays a wide-eyed eagerness mixed with a sly undercurrent of playfulness. Ms. Donnelly displays a sad eyed wistfulness to her portrait. This is the same character, but it’s not, at the same time. This work is not unlike a Rorschach test for the audience. Who is who, and what seems to be occurring in real time at any given moment is up to question. The play moves slowly forward and perhaps backward in time simultaneously.  The River is a tricky animal to discuss in full; least I divulge the enigma and mystery at its core. The aural soundscape 

Windchimes, crickets, owls and nature sounds, mixed with lightly menacing soft winds, designed by Ian Dickinson and composer Stephen Warbeck add immeasurably to the production. Set designer Ultz works wonders with the tiny, catwalk plank of wood that serves as this cabin that juts out into the audience,  dimly illuminated by Charles Balfour.  Everyone onstage acquits themselves with a commitment to their character and emotional sense of unease. Mr. Jackman in particular underplays and creates a fully complex creation, with more than a hint of an emotionally destructive past. His portrait is also filled with mystery. Is he potentially violent? Was there an unspeakable moment in his past with “The Woman”, or “The Other Woman”? The play moves in fits and starts without giving any concrete answers.  There are many moments of poetic musings on fishing…. Many moments. A heavy atmosphere of portentousness  bogs down the production. There is a mesmerizing monologue spoken in reverent tones that details “The Man” describing his younger self fly fishing in the lake. It ends with a long fought battle catching a trout. He does, finally catch the Holy Grail in his fishing rod, but by some slip of fate loses it back to the lake. It swims away, from a near death experience. This in some way seems to be a metaphor for “The Man” in retrospect. The females, singular, plural, in his life seem to mirror this existential aspect of his adult life.

The last ten minutes of the play seem to reveal exactly what has been happening.    But, in this dense and ultimately unsatisfying slog of a play, it still is up for interpretation. It would read better as a short story in “The New Yorker”. It’s much more interesting to think about in retrospect, thinking about the structure of the piece, the angst, the existentialism of the characters, the morphing of space and time. Maybe there is more to the play than I thought…. maybe not. Perhaps the Emperor has no clothes. One thing the play has going for it; in one word…. make it two. Hugh Jackman. If he were not starring in this meandering play, it would have had a very brief shelf life. Now that it is the hottest ticket on the boards for a straight play, it must say something. I just wish The River provided more to digest intellectually.

Circle in the Square
50th Street, West of Broadway
(212) 239-6200   
85 min.  No intermission
Extended through February 8th