'The River,' with Hugh Jackman, is a wisp of a fish tale

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
'River' with Hugh Jackman trades hard-hitting drama for poetry, symbol-laden small talk and undefined menace.

If Hugh Jackman decided to headline a musical tribute to the Yellow Pages, Broadway theatergoers would line up around Times Square. But the Tony-winning song-and-dance man/"X-Men" franchise star's latest project is one that is likely to elude whole swaths of his fan base.

Jackman stars in "The River," an enigmatic wisp of a drama by Jez Butterworth, the English playwright whose play "Jerusalem" was the occasion of one of Mark Rylance's recent Tony-winning turns of whirlwind virtuosity. "The River, "which opened Sunday at Broadway's Circle in the Square, isn't made of the same flamboyant mettle.

Instead of torrential monologues and flashy action sequences, the play gives the game-for-anything Australian superstar the opportunity to clean, gut and cook a fish. Instead of hard-hitting drama, there are recitations of poetry, symbol-laden small talk and undefined menace.

Jackman plays an unnamed man visiting a cabin with his new girlfriend (Cush Jumbo). He wants her to go fishing with him on this moonlit night when the trout are making a break for the sea. She demands that he take in the magnificent sunset with her and makes flimsy excuses for wanting to stay in. Their argument is over fly-fishing, but the real issue seems to be the daunting prospect of intimacy.

To coax her into joining him outdoors, he asks her to read aloud "After Moonless Midnight," but she makes a face when she sees that the author of the poem is Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's notorious husband — a reaction that only intensifies their male-female standoff.

The next scene finds Jackman's character phoning the police after the woman has disappeared during their fly-fishing outing. He is relieved when she calls out to him from the dark, but a different woman (played by Laura Donnelly) emerges in a surreal twist that is neither acknowledged nor explained.

The women switch off from this point with dreamlike fluidity. When one goes into the bedroom to retrieve something, the other returns and picks up the conversational thread.

The suggestion is that the man is following a practiced romantic script, that these special outings to this rustic retreat where he professes his love may not be so special after all. When Jumbo's character discovers a pair of gold earrings in the soap dish in the shower, the truth that she is neither the first nor likely to be the last female visitor is upon her.

The impossibility of ever truly knowing another person is writ large. The woman's claim that she is a fishing novice turns out to be a ruse to avoid a reenactment of her childhood trips with her father. The man might be concealing something more sinister.

Director Ian Rickson keeps the threat of violence on a low flame, but the heat is steadily applied. When the woman gets a splinter in her hand, the man plucks it out with a large knife. The look in his eye as he debones the fish, caught by the woman with help from a solicitous fisherman, is almost cannibalistic. And then there's the drawing found under the bed of a mysterious woman. Her face is apparently scratched out and she's wearing the same dress that's ominously hanging in the closet.

"The River" premiered in the tiny upstairs space at London's Royal Court Theatre (with Donnelly in the same role), and it's the kind of work that is best appreciated in an intimate house with reasonable ticket prices. The designer known as Ultz has created a cozy cabin environment on Circle in the Square's thrust stage, but there's no escaping that this is a minor work that could be encountered more profitably (not to say less expensively) off-Broadway.

The influence of Pinter is palpable in the play's triangular dramatic setup, which subtly evokes "Old Times." But another writer hovers even more prominently: Yeats. Butterworth seems to be exploring onstage themes and antitheses found in "The Song of the Wandering Aengus," a poem that is intoned at various points in the play.

Yeats' work revolves around the figure of a man who catches a silver trout that becomes a "glimmering girl" who disappears into "the brightening air" as magically as she appeared. This shape-shifting female presence is one that the man vows to pursue for the rest of his days — the natural and supernatural provisionally resolving themselves in the mythic.

Drama is a more concrete medium than poetry, however, and Butterworth's experiment only exposes the distance between the forms. The food is real in the production, and the incessant use of water — for rinsing, pouring, reflecting — brings the image of the river wetly to life.

But the characters aren't simply anonymous — they're ciphers. As distinctive as the actors are individually (Jumbo has a fierceness, Donnelly a stridency), there's an impersonal quality to their portrayals that makes the relationships hard to credit.

Jackman, whose electric aura challenges our acceptance of him as an ordinary bloke, is all concentrated modesty. But the character of this man, a narcissist with a game face, ultimately seems less real than the dead fish he prepares and consumes before our eyes.

Those feeling cheated for having paid $175 for a ticket to this barely 90-minute sketch can tell themselves they've shared a meal with Wolverine.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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