by Brian Scott Lipton
Every writer, even a lowly website theater critic, wants to have a “number 1 fan” – unless, of course, they’ve read Stephen King’s terrifying 1987 novel “Misery,” seen its Oscar-winning 1990 screen version, or now, viewed its highly effective Broadway adaptation (by William Goldman, the film’s screenwriter) at the Broadhurst Theatre. Suddenly, anonymity doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
The work’s premise is chillingly deceptive: after almost dying in a Colorado car crash, world-famous novelist Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) is rescued by local ex-nurse Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf) – who happens to be the author’s “number 1 fan”. The reclusive Annie takes Paul home (the house is designed here with great creativity on a revolving turntable by the brilliant David Korins), patches up his wounds, and appears to all, initially, like a 20th-century Florence Nightingale.
Unfortunately for Paul, Annie takes her fandom a little too seriously – not to mention her obsession with Paul’s enduring creation, Misery Chastain, the heroine of his series of historical romances. And when the newest “Misery” book arrives – and, shall we say, disappoints Annie, a battle of wits, wills, and weapons ensue.
As in the film, this doesn’t originally seem like a fair fight. It’s not that just Annie has the upper hand (and legs) over the injured Paul, but Metcalf gives a magnificent performance as the ultra-determined Annie. This always extraordinary actress paints a full-bodied portrait of this often scary, if ultimately, pathetic woman who has her own moral compass (definitely not pointed at true north). We end up understanding how her life choices, as well as those that may have been imposed on her, have led her to become a person for whom books matter more than people, including local sheriff Buster (Leon Addison Brown).
Conversely, for most of the show’s 90 minutes, Willis (returning to the New York stage for the first time in over 30 years) offers a rather understated turn as Paul – perhaps one better suited for the camera than the footlights. At times, it’s hard to tell if he’s being sly or just sheepish in his dealings with Annie, and he’s not completely convincing as the kind of guy who would write historical novels. (Honestly, neither was James Caan in the film.) But Willis eventually more than holds his own as both his physical strength and mental endurance grows, and the stakes become higher in his fight for survival.
Director Will Frears (making his Broadway bow) keeps the pacing relatively taut, though some of the early-going feels a bit more dragged out than necessary. In addition to Korins’ set, Frears’ other secret weapon is Michael Friedman’s eerie original score, which does a fantastic job of adding to the mood of fear and dread.
“Misery” won’t necessarily make you sad, or happy, but it does the job of thrilling and chilling quite well – in addition to providing yet another showcase for the titanic talent known as Laurie Metcalf.
Misery Broadhurst Theatre 235 West 44 Street, NYC www.miserybroadway.com 90 minutes