Written by William Goldman
Directed by Will Frears
As ice mounds stand tall and grey on New York City streets and the sky fills with winter’s forbidding clouds, Stephen King’s Misery continues on Broadway in its final weeks, ending with a broken heart on Valentine’s Day (ticketing info here). If you’re in the area, you could do worse than to see this oddly-toned curiosity.
Paul Sheldon (Willis), a best selling author, has had an accident. His car rolled off a snow bank, and no one knows where he is. Sheldon is safe we later find out, or so he thinks—his savior and superfan Annie Wilkes (Metcalf) happened upon the scene of the accident and has rescued him. She is steadfast by his side as he heals, though caretaking turns torturous when she finds out Sheldon has killed her favorite romance character, Misery Chastain, in his latest novel. She is then determined to make the world right, to burn his new manuscript, which marked a new direction in his career (Annie regards this direction as vulgar). No, she insists that Sheldon is better off continuing what he is most known for—he must resurrect Misery in a new story dedicated to and written exclusively for Annie. And so begins the Scheherazade nightmare of being at the mercy of the entitlement and expectations of your “biggest fan.”
Preceding the Broadway production we have both the best-selling novel Misery (1987) and the film adaptation directed by Rob Reiner in 1990, which won a Best Actress Academy Award for Kathy Bates. With regard to the live theater adaptation, this review could go either way. Any horror fan has most likely seen the film and has read the book and so is primed, knowing the score going in. Can someone inherit the character of Annie and ever hope to live up to the star-making performance of Ms. Bates? Metcalf (of the sitcom “Roseanne” and HBO’s “Getting On”) does bring her own spin to the role; though she is not as physically terrifying as Bates, she emotes hairpin insanity.
Willis (Die Hard), on the other hand, is a bit stiff here in the role originated by James Caan in the film. Caan played it with a convincingly twitchy, terror-stricken charm, but Willis’ performance never rings true. He plays it with a sarcasm-infused monotone; he is never terrified, and he never stops being Bruce Willis, which means he is never vulnerable enough for the audience to feel he is in genuine danger. The only character left to engage with, then, is Annie, which undermines the entire story.
The set is a revolving stage of a house: the kitchen, living room, and Paul’s room—we even have an exterior where a pesky cop wonders as to the whereabouts of her favorite author. The snow bank accident is told in backstory and via the radio. As with the other versions of the story, the stage production keeps in line with the closed environment, which quickly turns into a prison for Paul, but also for Annie as well. The look is very basic and does its job; in line with the essence of this production, it meets expectations but can’t move past them into anything great.
The crowd seemed to enjoy the show. They laughed along with Metcalf’s sometimes goofy Annie—and yes, that one scene with the sledgehammer gets a gasp—but overall I am not sure what director Frears had in mind. It does not play to the expressionistic terror of something like Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd—the sets are mundanely realistic, the score does not shake us, the actors never achieve the pitch of nightmares. But neither does it takes on the quality of hard drama, to take the material of a man in peril held captive by his fan seriously enough to draw us in. It’s fun enough to watch, though my suspicions are more this is a commercial/meta take on the work. We know what is going to happen so for a 90-minute night on the town, it’s nice to visit an old friend that’s not too scary or trying too hard.
It’s a safe bet for comfortable entertainment, a nicely packaged tourist’s ritual. A style rooted more in Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty would have been an appropriate angle, to confront and reach the audience to feel and transform through the timely trauma of the story. Maybe they were afraid to play it for real and decided they didn’t want to be laughed at so they would rather you laugh with a man trapped by a cockadoody psycho. It’s King on stage, and with a short run and mild ambition, it is not as doomed as the musical Carrie, whose original run died after five performances. Misery has been at the Broadhurst since November 15th (previews started October 22, 2015), and its coroner’s report when its time is up will note natural causes and not the venomed quills of critics.
Stephen King’s Misery is a worst-case scenario written by someone who has been in the spotlight forever and is known for a certain kind of story. King knows this truth when it comes to fans and the sometimes tyrannical nature of fan entitlement. When will we want more from our creative idols that we would steal them (a la Scorsese’s King of Comedy) for ourselves? As the film and book focus mercilessly on the dramatic aspect of this lesson, I question why the stage play does not. Beware, you authors facing down the hordes approaching your table at Comic-Con or lurking invisible out on the Internet—they are coming to get you.