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Hugh Jackman opens 'The River' on Broadway to sharply divided reviews

Hugh Jackman opens 'The River' on Broadway to sharply divided reviews
Hugh Jackman as The Man in "The River," a play directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York. (Richard Termine / Associated Press)

Hugh Jackman officially returned to Broadway on Sunday for the first time in three years, though the theatrical vehicle he chose this time around is about as far from a traditional crowd-pleaser that an audience full of rowdy "X-Men" fans can get.

The Australian star opened in Jez Butterworth's drama "The River" at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York  The three-character drama is a dark, ambiguous psychological study about a man (Jackman) who is an enthusiastic trout fisherman.

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The play, which runs at just under 90 minutes, opened in London at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012 with a cast that included Dominic West in the lead role.

Jackman is joined on Broadway by the other two members of the London cast, Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo, who play the women in his life -- though things are not quite as simple as that. The play marks the Broadway return of Butterworth, who was nominated for a Tony Award for "Jerusalem" in 2011.

"The River," directed by Ian Rickson, is Jackman's fourth Broadway outing and has been selling out performances at the modestly sized Circle in the Square even before opening night.

Reviews of "The River" have so far been sharply divided. (Here is Times critic Charles McNulty's review of the production.)

Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that the play "is guaranteed to hold your attention. But you're likely to leave it feeling hungry, and not just because it aims to mystify." As the ambiguous protagonist, Jackman has "squelched his urge to ingratiate" himself to the audience, Brantley wrote, but the performance nevertheless has an "understated power."

Deadline's Jeremy Gerard described Jackman as "electrifying," adding that the actor's presence on stage "confers a sense of privilege upon the audience something akin to having Mick Jagger show up at your cocktail party just to shoot the breeze." The play itself seems to take place in "a strange dimension where happenstance and experience intermingle, which seems a lot like life." 

David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter called the play "a sliver of a mood piece that never tightens its grip," adding that it is "more of a literary exercise than a theatrical or cinematic one." But Jackman brings "heart and a haunted sadness" to his character and "makes him a soulful figure."

The New York Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote that the play is "overreaching and underachieving, its hollow pretentiousness even more glaring under the bright Broadway lights." The production's biggest asset is "is the warmly funny Donnelly, a Brit who brings a much-needed life force to this turgid tale. Jackman is mostly manly and stoic."

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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