Two Reviews: Productions Featuring Hugh Jackman and John Hawkes Don’t Quite Hit Marks
On the surface, The River and Lost Lake have a great deal in common. Both are named for bodies of water, are set in a rustic, remote cabins, sport small casts and run about 90 minutes with no intermission. In addition, neither is a masterwork, but on closer examination, they couldn’t be more different. River is a Broadway commercial vehicle with London snob-appeal license plates driven by a Tony-winning star. Lake is a new play with a somewhat cliched plot in a small Off-Broadway theater with two respected but not ballyhooed actors (despite one being an Oscar nominee), yet it’s the more satisfying evening of theater. River is pretentious and overblown while Lake is truthful if flawed.
River, the first play by Jez Butterworth after his triumphant transcontinental sensation Jerusalem, comes to us after a smash British production starring Dominic West, now with the charismatic Hugh Jackman as The Man—unnamed capitalized characters are always a sign of trouble—an outdoor enthusiast bringing his new girlfriend to his cabin for a weekend of fishing and lovemaking. After much poetic speechifying on the thrill of landing a trout (The Man compares his first catch to “the tongue of God”), rehashing of sex and swimming (they were both present so why retell everything?), The Woman discovers she’s only one in a chain of conquests. In a confusing, Pinteresque choice, The Other Woman, a previous or perhaps a future amour, also puts in several appearances, sometimes simultaneously with The Woman (got that?)
Butterworth layers on the polysyllabic blather with each of the three characters waxing all romantic about nature and relationships, but there’s very little substance here. Director Ian Rickson attempts to inject tension—Charles Balfour’s lighting helps out somewhat—but the playwright gives him little to work with. The Woman mentions seeing what seems to be a ghost. The Other Woman encounters another fisherman and The Man shows signs of jealousy, flashing a dangerous-looking fish-gutting knife. But that’s about it. All we’re left with at the end of this wisp of a play is a philanderer who likes to fish and fool around.
Jackman is in terrific shape and his bulging biceps as well as his filleting skills are on display. Those qualities may be enough for a Cooking Channel show, but they don’t sustain an evening of theater. The magnetic Tony winner fails to dive deeply into this guy’s psyche, so all the attention is grabbed by Cush Jumbo, a sparkplug of dramatic energy, as The Woman. Laura Donnelly imbues The Other Woman with a quiet dignity. Both women manage to send a jolt of life into this otherwise moribund mackerel of a play.
Lost Lake at Manhattan Theatre Club is riddled with clichés, but at least it’s got more sizzle and juice than the pretentious River. We’re in a cabin again, but instead of allegory and poetry, playwright David Auburn (a Pulitzer winner for Proof), gives us gritty details and believable characters. The plot is your basic Total Strangers Become Unlikely Friends pattern, but Auburn’s frequent directing collaborator Daniel Sullivan and a cast of two—Tracie Thoms and Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)—give it the necessary verisimilitude to make us care about what happens.
Single mom Veronica rents a lakeside cottage from sketchy-looking Hogan for a week’s vacation away from the city with her two kids. At first it seems Hogan is a scummy perv, lurking around the property and living out of his truck. But it turns out he’s a well-meaning loser and Veronica, a recently-unemployed nurse, has many self-inflicted problems of her own. Of course, after revelations and a crisis, they become tentative pals over a couple bottles of beer. Yes, it’s predictable but Thoms and Hawkes don’t condescend to the material, giving it an honesty that belies the familiar machinations. Hawkes is especially moving as the unlucky Hogan. His total breakdown after a series of bad turns is frighteningly raw in its nakedness. There’s a lot more going on at the Lake than the River.
The River: Nov. 16—Feb. 8, 2015. Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Tue.—Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.—Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission; $35-$175. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Lost Lake: Nov. 11—Dec. 21. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $95. (212) 339-3050 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com.