Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The River

Photo: Sara Krulwich
Playwright Jez Butterworth embraces the poetic in his work. In his 2009 epic Jerusalem (seen on Broadway in 2011, with Mark Rylance), he attempted to answer Blake's patriotic decree: "I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land." He ended up producing a play that matched the grandiosity of Blake's verse, which longtime readers of this blog will recall as not being one of my favorites. In his newest play, The River (currently on Broadway at Circle in the Square), both Ted Hughes and W.B. Yeats are name-checked, though its the latter who holds the key to understanding this intimate and beguiling chamber drama.

Yeats' "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" is sung off-stage at the beginning of the play, and recurs several times throughout the eighty minute running time. It's also printed and inserted into the playbill. Seeing a play probably shouldn't come with homework, but I think it would be wise to give the poem a glance before the action starts. Butterworth is not just a playwright who rejects easy answers; at times, you may not even be sure what questions are being asked. This can be frustrating (as it was, for me, with Jerusalem--which, I should say, is one of his more accessible works), but it can also be rewarding, as it is here. Playwrights and artists shouldn't be afraid to make people work a bit for their entertainment, if the result is worth it. And with that, I feel I shouldn't say anything more specific about the plot, lest I spoil anyone's experience.

A play as small and as strange as The River probably wouldn't make it to Broadway in a commercial production were it not for the involvement of a major boldface name, and this production certainly has that in the form of Hugh Jackman. Those only familiar with Jackman from the two extremes of his career--his X-Men persona and his jovial song-and-dance-man schtick--will likely be surprised by the gritty, committed performance he delivers here. As with Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man, Jackman brings all the power and presence of a great star, yet he never feels too big for the room. He deftly plays off the energy of his two co-stars, Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly, who are both superb in their Broadway debuts.

I also want to take a moment and thank the producers of The River for making a large number of tickets available at a reasonable price. For every performance, a block of tickets has been set aside to be sold, in advance, for $35. These tickets are sold on a week-to-week basis, available at the box office beginning every Monday morning at 10. A second block of $35 seats is then sold, day-of, at the box office. (Information on these discounted seats can be found at And the first two rows of the small theatre are sold in advance for $95, which, while higher than $35, is significantly lower than the top ticket price of $175. Commercial theatre is a business, of course, but it's a good business practice to recognize that not everyone can afford top price, and to offer alternatives. And it seems to have paid off, with this production recouping a $3 million advance in just seven weeks. To all involved, I say bravi, and thanks.

[Fifth row, audience right. Access tickets, $35.]

1 comment:

broadwayandme said...

I appreciate that you liked this show but I wish you'd explained more about why you like it (besides the cheaper ticket prices) and I think you can do that without spoiling the show for others. So why was the play rewarding for you? What is Butterworth going for here? Even a hint would help. I'm not trying to give you a hard time, I'm just trying to figure out what it is that I missed when seeing this show.