Misery loves company, or so the saying goes. Screenwriter/playwright William Goldman has adapted his 1990 film for the stage, which in turn, is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The straightforward plot unfolds over the course of several months as screenwriter Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) is taken under the care of his number one fan, Annie Walker (Laurie Metcalf) after barely surviving a car accident in a remote area just outside Silver Creek, Colorado.
Film buffs will remember Kathy Bates’ Academy Award-winning performance opposite James Caan. It was a psychologically thrilling film, driven by director Rob Reiner’s keen eye. The theatrical team has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, does justice to the faithful stage adaptation.
Goldman’s script unfolds in a cinematic manner in short scenes punctuated by original music (Michael Friedman) and a realistic revolving set (David Korins) that offers a glimpse inside Annie’s unstable mind. Director Will Frears’ challenge is to make something palpable out of the familiar. Anyone who’s seen the film knows where the action is headed, so creating dramatic tension is difficult, in addition to the fact that there’s not a lot of action—Paul is bed-ridden or in a wheelchair for the majority of the performance.
Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Willis (along with brief appearances by Leon Addison Brown as Buster, the local police officer) are each compelling in their own way. Metcalf brings a lithe and quirky instability to the role—a culmination of her decades-long career on stage and screen. Perhaps offering more punch than Bates’ film performance, she is adept at flipping from caregiver to psychopath on a dime, and seems to relish each purposeful transition.
Willis returns to the New York stage after nearly 30 years and there have been multiple reports about his unease. The New York Times described him “aloof and evasive” in a feature published this September, perhaps the culmination of a difficult rehearsal process and grueling press commitments. But Willis is more than serviceable. While his career has primarily been built on action films, he manages to extract a weathered believability that only falters in the play’s final moments, where a thrust of revolt requires an energy level that he’s not quite able to muster. That element of surprise feels somewhat deflated after an 85-minute build-up, and the play meanders to its final denouement.
For Stephen King fans or celebrity chasers that get thrills by Hollywood’s Broadway invasion, Misery provides a pleasant enough evening at the theatre. But it’s Metcalf that reminds us that there’s nothing like live performance and witnessing a true actor immersed in her craft.
Here’s what the critics are saying:
“Misery” the play is saturated in what feels like an amused, nostalgic distance from its source material. It’s as if Mr. Willis and Ms. Metcalf had shown up at the behest of a “Misery” fan club to share memories of our enjoyment of the book and movie and to chuckle over how they once scared the wits out of us. Even the requisite dark-and-stormy atmospherics (with lighting by David Weiner, sound by Darron L West and creepy music by Michael Friedman) register as gentle, teasing reminders of guilty thrills past.” The New York Times
“The bed-bound Paul is a purely reactive role; still, helmer Will Frears lets Willis get away with murder by maintaining his sophisticated-author cool well beyond the point of believability. It takes the iconic scene in which a maddened Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s healed legs to get the star to drop his sultry half-smile.
This leaves the field to Metcalf, a favorite stage thesp who maintains a strong theatrical presence despite a full dance card in film and television (“Getting On,” “The Big Bang Theory,” the “Toy Story” series). A grown-up waif in Ann Roth’s sad costumes of cardigan sweaters and one pathetically dated “good dress,” Annie is a pathological version of King’s rabid fans. Metcalf skillfully modulates her emotional transitions from adoring to obsessive to psychotic. Her eyelids flutter, her hand gestures quicken, and her vocal range reaches for the high notes.
It’s a stunning performance, even if, in this oddly fear-free production, she provokes more pity than terror.” Variety
Broadway & 44th Street
Through February 14
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.