It’s an odd paradox that as Broadway fare grows more generic, genre pieces flail. Suspense is especially moribund; A Time to Kill tanked in 2013, and it may be that the last really successful incarnation of the form was Deathtrap, which closed in 1982. And though I usually find thrillers vapid, I did hope that William Goldman’s Misery, based on his script for the successful 1990 movie and the Stephen King novel, might reverse the trend. A healthy industry offers a variety of products. But despite a story that’s serviceably creepy and a handsome production starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf, what this production mostly demonstrates is the futility of digging up the dead.
Digging up the dead is, as you may know, a plot point here. Willis plays Paul Sheldon, the author of a series of historical romances featuring a heroine named Misery Chastain. Concerned about being stuck forever in the backwaters of a disfavored genre — as King himself was concerned, regarding horror — Sheldon kills off Misery in the ninth installment of his series. Unfortunately, that book (Misery’s Child) is published just as he is recovering from a near-fatal car crash in the remote Colorado home of his self-professed number-one fan, Annie Wilkes, a nurse-psychopath who has made him her patient and prisoner. Enraged by the death of her favorite character ever, she forces Sheldon — through physical and psychological torture — to write a surprise tenth installment, called Misery’s Return, in which the lady’s apparent death is revealed to have been nothing more than a kind of catalepsy resulting from a bee sting; she is dug up in time to resume her plucky ways. Meanwhile, Sheldon, understanding that Annie means to keep him trapped in her house forever or kill him, strategizes various ingenious and desperate ways of getting out.
That the play, borrowing heavily on the movie, is neatly plotted does not mean it is structurally satisfying. Basically it has only two actions, which keep alternating: Sheldon develops a plan, and Annie foils it. The movie, with its variety of shots and its focus on details, could disguise that endless tick-tock, but onstage the drama flattens out and separates. (The script consists of 25 discrete scenes, plus a prologue and epilogue, and you feel each one in the theater.) To compensate for that and build tension, the director Will Frears has called for creepy cat’s-paw music (by Michael Friedman) that too obviously references mystery tropes and, more successfully, a terrific revolving set (by David Korins) that gets some motion going just at the right moments in the otherwise very static scenario. The staging of the famous moments of terror (with special effects by Gregory Meeh and fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet) is also highly effective, involving, among other things, lighter fluid, a shotgun, needles, and prosthetic limbs. If gore is your thing, be content to know that I have abrasions all over my forearm from where my freaked-out companion gripped and clawed me.
But faithfully approximating what movies do better is not the same as stagecraft, any more than movie acting makes sense in a theater. Willis, despite a few previous stage appearances, has no stage chops; he’s giving an intelligent performance to an entirely interior idea of audience. He is often inaudible, and in some strange way, the lack of psychology in his interpretation makes his face seem also unseeable. On the other hand, Metcalf, a stage creature for decades despite her television fame — she plays a slightly less-crazy healthcare provider* on the HBO comedy series Getting On — knows exactly how to engage the audience, and continually recalibrate that engagement to suit the effects she seeks. The intelligence of her performance, unlike Willis’s, is completely psychological and visible, and it’s a tougher job too: making this wack job not only make sense but seem freakishly familiar, which is the real terror. I found her passages of quasi-normalcy much more upsetting than her briefer moments of goo-goo-eyed mania.
I was therefore surprised to find the audience laughing at her character’s antics and even applauding her outwitting of Sheldon. Perhaps too many people already know the story to respond to it as suspense, instead greeting its gruesome highlights as others greet song cues at The Rocky Horror Show. Or perhaps the genre has become so marginalized that it’s finally fallen off the page altogether, landing in a puddle of camp. I’m not sure that’s a death even Misery Chastain could survive.
Misery is at the Broadhurst Theatre through February 7.
Note: The reference to Laurie Metcalf's role on Getting On has been corrected.