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The Shark Is Broken

  • Theater, Comedy
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Shark Is Broken
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew MurphyThe Shark Is Broken

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Ian Shaw's movie-history play snatches moments of defeat from the victory of Jaws.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Ian Shaw was four years old in 1974, when his father, the British actor and alcoholic Robert Shaw, filmed his role as the weather-beaten hunter Quint in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The elder Shaw died four years later; now, the junior is portraying him in the diverting The Shark Is Broken, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Jaws on location at Martha’s Vineyard. The play, co-written with Joseph Nixon, strands Shaw at sea with his fellow lead actors—Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) and Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell)—then invites us to spy on their booze-soaked clashes, bonding and petty mutinies as they wait to be called to action.

Played well by his son, who bears a striking resemblance to him, this Shaw is as tempestuous as Quint. On one hand, he is a classical thespian who threads Shakespeare into his dialogue—Hamlet, Lear, Sonnet 29 in full—and flaunts his contempt for the movie they are making: “It’s bread and circuses, chums.” But on the flip side of that same hand, he’s a dipsomaniacal terror who hides flasks of liquor all over the set and mercilessly goads the softer, thinner-skinned Dreyfuss. (If that’s his chum, is Shaw the shark?) The even-keeled Scheider, meanwhile, is caught between his co-stars’ different strains of vanity—not that he’s wholly immune to that particular sin. (When he has a moment to himself, he strips down to tan with a foil reflector.)

The Shark Is Broken | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

If not for our ongoing fascination with Jaws, The Shark Is Broken would be of limited interest: three men in a boat reading newspaper articles (“NIXON RESIGNS”), reminiscing about their childhoods, bickering about Hollywood and drinking a whole lot more than they should. But since the movie remains a cultural touchstone, the play makes for pleasant entertainment. Director Guy Masterson does an admirable job of finding tension and variety in a very low-stakes situation; scenic designer Duncan Henderson’s cross-section of a boat is effectively nested in Nina Dunn’s video design, a curving backdrop of water and sky. 

The best thing onstage is Brightman, whose huffy, neurotic Dreyfuss powers the show with boosts of dynamic comedy. Otherwise, the humor relies too heavily on what might be called retrospective irony: The slightly smug amusement that results when we, in the present, watch people in the past predict or mispredict their future. “One thing's for certain: If there is a sequel, I will not be in it,” says Schieder, the star of 1978’s Jaws 2. “UFOs! Aliens! Jesus!” Shaw bellows when he learns the subject of Spielberg’s next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “Whatever next? Dinosaurs?”

For a play that draws much of its appeal from nostalgia, The Shark Is Broken mostly avoids documentary-style exposition about the making of Jaws, but it may include some Easter eggs for those on the hunt. When Dreyfuss remembers seeing Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope on Broadway, it’s a nugget of real biography (taken verbatim from a period interview) that—probably accidentally—doubles as a pun about the great white shark they hope to see. But could it also be a nod to the fact that it was Sackler who came up with the idea for Quint’s wrenching monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, most of whose survivors were devoured by sharks while waiting to be rescued? In any case, the play has the good sense to end with Shaw’s performance of that very speech—which the actor also had a hand in writing—in its entirety. Intense and lean, it handily outmatches the preceding scenes of uneasy boatmates bobbing in the drink. 

The Shark Is Broken. John Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon. Directed by Guy Masterson. With Shaw, Alex Brightman, Colin Donnell. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.

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The Shark Is Broken | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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