The River

Theater, Broadway
 (Photograph: Richard Termine)
1/5
Photograph: Richard TermineThe River
 (Photograph: Richard Termine)
2/5
Photograph: Richard TermineThe River
 (Photograph: Richard Termine)
3/5
Photograph: Richard TermineThe River
 (Photograph: Richard Termine)
4/5
Photograph: Richard TermineThe River
 (Photograph: Richard Termine)
5/5
Photograph: Richard TermineThe River

The River. Circle in the Square (see Broadway). By Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson. With Hugh Jackman, Cush Jumbo, Laura Donnelly. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.

The River: In brief

Hugh Jackman may not be singing and dancing, but we still can't wait to see his new gig on Broadway. The charismatic Aussie stars in a mysterious new piece by Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem) about a fisherman in a remote cabin and the two women (Cush Jumbo, Laura Donnelly) he entertains there. Ian Rickson directs.

The River: Theater review by David Cote

Jez Butterworth’s elliptical chamber drama is a mystery play in the purest sense: no answers, no closure. As Hugh Jackman (identified only as the Man) interacts with Cush Jumbo (the Woman) and Laura Donnelly (the Other Woman), you may worry over the gals’ well-being: Is Jackman playing a serial womanizer—or something more sinister? Next moment, your heart goes out to the lonely guy, connected more to the stream outside his cabin than his appealing houseguests. Then there’s the fact that the ladies switch places midscene with the Man, making the action seem both continuous and fractured. Crime thriller? Erotic memoir? Ghost story? Yes and no.

Wriggling slickly through all these categories, The River is a metaphysical piece, despite visceral business (the Man guts and cooks a trout). The language often grows heightened, with aria-like monologues about water, fish, the weather and furious lovemaking (“It was beyond hunger, beyond need—like this giant rolling, fiery, roaring ball with me in the middle of it”).

The symbols have defiant heft: Is the Man fishing for love, as well as sport? When he boasts that his lures are totally artificial, is he talking about courtship rituals? And when he shows each woman a rock that holds special meaning for him, should we notice that it’s heart-shaped? Even if you’re allergic to cryptic allegory, there’s no denying Butterworth is a splendid writer—drunk on English nature poetry, reflexively funny, digging electrifying lines straight out of the dirt and his characters’ skins.

His constant collaborator, director Ian Rickson, builds the right tone of suspenseful wonder and vague dread. Designer Ultz’s set, a long cabin traverse with cobwebs dangling from rafters and glittering in Charles Balfour’s spectral lighting, is augmented by Ian Dickinson’s evocative woodland sounds penetrating from beyond.

For those turned on to Butterworth by 2011’s Jerusalem, the new work clearly continues his fascination with self-destructive outsiders in pastoral isolation. The River may lack the Rabelaisian exuberance of Jerusalem but offers more intimacy and outright strangeness. Those attending simply to ogle Jackman (buff and charismatic as always) get an extra treat, if they can appreciate it: a movie star facing an acting challenge in an exceptional piece of stage writing. So what if it doesn’t make literal sense; let it wash over you, and you may get hooked.—Theater review by David Cote

THE BOTTOM LINE Jackman strays from his comfort zone in this weird meditation on love and loss.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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