The title is misleading. It leads one to think the play is going to be one long groan of sadness, and that’s not what unfolds for us in its ninety minutes of playing time. “Misery” is the name of the central character in a series of nine best selling novels by Paul Sheldon, and a lady named Annie Wilkes, who lives just outside Silver Creek, Colorado has become obsessed with her just as though she were flesh and blood.
Sheldon has badly crashed his car very near Wilkes’ home, and as she’d been following him from a sighting of him in town, she was the sole witness to his accident, the one who ran to his rescue, brought him back to her home, and saved his life. When he regained consciousness after three days he was naturally grateful to her for the attention and care she’s d given him. Little by little we learn that she can no longer distinguish between reality and the life that Misery leads between book covers. As Sheldon is bed ridden, suffering from internal bruises as well as two shattered legs, Annie has him under her full control, and when an officer comes to visit seeking any information she might have about the missing Paul Sheldon, she very adroitly avoids any connection to herself.
William Goldman, the gifted novelist and screen writer, has written for the theatre before, but not often. An early start led him to a collaboration with his brother James and John Kander (three friends from Kansas City announcing they were in New York — to stay) on a musical, A Family Affair which softly launched the three of them. He and his brother then turned out a wartime comedy, Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole. It wasn’t a success and William turned to novels and hit pay dirt early on with Soldier In The Rain, The Temple of Gold, Magic, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, among many others, and sprinkled them with best selling non-fiction titles like The Season and Adventures In The Screen Trade. Clearly he knows how to tell a story.
His screenplays put him on the “A” list in Hollywood, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (an original) and All The President’s Men (an adaptation) both winning him an Oscar. He wrote the screenplay to Stephen King’s novel Misery, and it is that material he has now fashioned into a one act 90 minute play that has attracted Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf to come to Broadway in the roles first played on film by James Caan and Kathy Bates (who won an Academy Award for her performance)..
The play is in cinematic form, structured around many short scenes. It is set in front of and inside Annie Wilkes’ remote home in Colorado, to which she has retreated with the borrowed broken body of Paul Sheldon. She tells no one that he is there, even lying to him in reporting that she has reached his wife and agent in New York City. A local sheriff, is suspicious that Sheldon may be hidden in this house, because someone in town let slip that Annie had been buying reams of writing paper. The designer has given the play a most atmospheric setting, David Weiner’s lighting can give you the creeps, and Ann Roth’s costumes for Annie are very helpful in knowing who she is.
Goldman’s play has removed all the characters from the film except Sheldon, Wilkes and to add suspense, the small role of “Buster,” the sherriff. Though Sheldon is bedridden throughout the play, he does manage to crawl into the living room and the kitchen and whenever he moves, the house moves with him. They are both accompanied by incidental music by Michael Friedman, and there is use of Liberace material (unlikely and very effective) to create mood or to counterpoint some of the scariest moments (and there are several ).
What makes it all work however, is the contrasting and beautiful work of both stars. Laurie Metcalf has hidden reserves of madness stored up within her very pleasant face and form, but it’s a different and more dangerous sort than the eccentricities in her current TV series Getting On, in which she plays another tightly wound nurse. She is charming, goofily funny, terrifyingly menacing and even on occasion coyly flirtatious.
Bruce Willis has wisely chosen to stress the inner calm and self control that is inherent in his version of Paul Sheldon but manages concurrently to let us know he is scared (almost) to death. There is quiet dignity in his performance, and it’s all far from his screen image most usually presented as the man who must Die Hard. It’s not a movie star “drop in” performance, as it’s well grounded and works very well with what Ms. Metcalf is doing.
The Sheriff is played by Leon Addison Brown.It’s a believable quiet performance and he works well with Metcalf who is aware that she must deflect him from all thoughts of interfering with her plans for the future. I won’t tell you what that plan is, but I suspect you are going to be afraid that she will achieve it.
There are times when things happen slowly, but I was always involved, and willing to wait as the set turned once again from bedroom to hallway to living room to the exterior. I was never quite sure where all this was going, and the conclusion, which may surprise some, deserved the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by a very happy house.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.