The River is the most conspicuous Emperor’s New Clothes event I’ve seen in quite a while. It comes with the pedigree of Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth and Hugh Jackman in the lead role, Ian Rickman as director…and leaves you feeling…
Well, what. I can’t tell you I wasn’t in the presence of an alert and highly responsive audience…but I think that was about the pedigree, and the level of production and performance, which is, of course, fine and import-from-Londonworthy. But the play itself? I asked my companion of the evening if I had missed something; she was wondering if she had. I asked a critic colleague I trust much, but with whom I don’t routinely agree, the same question; his response was that the only thing I missed was whatever I might have been doing instead of watching The River, which he categorized as “the most boring play of the decade.” And while I won’t go quite that far, I will say I don’t think it’s much more than an attenuated shaggy dog story: a long-winded anecdote that leads to a meaningless punch line.
The only way to particularize that is to risk entering The Land of Spoilers. I’ll try my level best not to tip everything, but there’s so little to protect that any detailing risks spilling the beans. Or in this case the bean.
The Man (Hugh Jackman), an outdoorsy type, has brought his girlfriend The Woman (Cush Jumbo), who seems not terribly outdoorsy, to his cabin in the woods by the river of the title, for some serious fishing (of several varieties). At certain moments The Woman goes off and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), also his girlfriend, comes on and we realize that, shades of Alan Ayckbourn, we’re watching two separate romantic relationships, occurring during separate timelines, being played out simultaneously. As each relationship gets more intimate, it also becomes more fraught with foreboding, spiritual and, we think, maybe-maybe, a bit physical too. It becomes clearer that a pattern is being played out. What we don’t know is, in the chronology, are these women #1 and #2? Has there been a woman or women before? What is all this leading to?
And here’s the thing.
The play never tells us. Like some eerie short story with Henry James-type ambitions, it doesn’t define the reality, but leaves it open to interpretation, reinforcing only that the pattern has a template and may recur.
Now I’m not saying The River intends to be a horror story or a psychological thriller; I honestly don’t know, it plays its cards that close to the vest. But in Stephen King’s treatise on horror writing, Danse Macabre, he wrote this: “[T]he simple fact of horror fiction in whatever medium you choose…the bedrock of horror fiction, we might say, is simply this: you gotta scare the audience. Sooner or later you gotta put on the gruesome mask and go booga-booga. The [audience] will not feed forever on innuendo and vapors; sooner or later even the great H. P. Lovecraft had to produce whatever was lurking in the crypt or in the steeple.”
Playwright Jez Butterworth never goes there. It is of course an often uniquely theatrical technique to preserve aspects of ambiguity—Harold Pinter, to name but one, built his entire career on it. But The River is too specific in all its other regards—setting, characterization, dialogue, propping (a very large knife used for chopping vegetables and scoring a fish for cooking, is given way too much stage time to be regarded as innocuous. It doesn’t claim the territory of ambiguity; it doesn’t earn permission to remain aloof. It teases with the promise of answers.
Which it then steadfastly refuses to deliver.
Tell me it’s intended as an atmospheric tone poem, I’ll say all right, fair enough; but then we enter the moodscape of writers like Jonathan Carroll. He builds his terrors very quietly, slowly-slowly moving you down the path to your destination and it isn’t until you’re right there that you realize you’re trapped in a web. But it’s still a destination; you get the endgame.
Same, in a way, applies to the performances. Since there can be no catharsis of revelation in The River, none of the roles can be a tour de force, particularly not Jackman’s and he’s the in-demand name above the title—and has proven that he deserves to be; he has that kind of flair and insistence. And yet…while he’s perfectly fine, as are the two ladies, under the direction of Ian Rickman, he just doesn’t have to be there; not in the way that Mark Rylance had to be there for Jerusalem, Butterworth’s last Broadway outing; or in the way that Lee J. Cobb had to be there for Death of a Salesman; or Walter Matthau had to be there for The Odd Couple…and etc. Jackman’s presence is just not necessary,. Nor can anything he brings to the party, no matter how nuanced and particular, mark the role as indelibly his own. Any decently charismatic leading man would be as effective.
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