Misery on Broadway – What Every Other Review Won’t Tell You
by Jason Sechrest
In the Fall of 2015, Misery came to Broadway – but that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds.
The stage adaptation of the novel by Stephen King made its run at the Broadhurst Theater from November 15th, 2015 to February 14th, 2016, starring Bruce Willis as romance novelist Paul Sheldon (who has suffered a near fatal car accident in a snow storm), and Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes, his “#1 fan” who has rescued him from said crash only to hold him captive in her home.
Now, we could have reviewed Misery on Broadway during its run, but where is the fun in all that? If the good folks at Cemetery Dance Online had decided to go in that direction – if they’d conformed to societal norms, and done the thing that’s been done and done better before – then what you’re about to read would have been just another one of your standard play reviews; a soapbox moment the likes of which you’ve already seen from more so-called reputable sources like The New York Times (they hated it), or Variety (they really hated it), in which those who can’t act opine on those who can; those who know nothing about directing feel justified in telling you how they’d have done it; and, most discouragingly, those from whom you’ve never sought advice feel compelled to give it to you all the same. These are not so much reviews as they are report cards, never revealing too much about the play itself, especially when it comes to one like Misery, for fear of “spoilers,” because after all, aren’t we all really just going to see how they pull off that crazy hobbling scene? And so, no. We’ll not be providing you with that old chestnut: your standard play review. Not today.
On the contrary, Constant Reader, we know what you want, and what’s more we know that you’re busy. We’re willing to take a wild guess that you are among the 99.999999% of the world population who didn’t actually get a chance to see Misery on Broadway and, as such, you don’t want a spoiler-free review. You want to be spoiled. So that is what we intend to do. We’re going to let you know what really happened on that stage, with as little critiquing as we can get away with.
And so, without any further ado, here are the things every other review won’t tell you about Misery on Broadway.
Saying that Misery on Broadway is the stage adaptation of the novel by Stephen King isn’t entirely accurate. More precisely, it is the stage adaptation of the film adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. Misery on Broadway was written by William Goldman, who also penned the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning film. Goldman saved the ink in his little red pen as if preparing for an editorial drought, hardly making a mark on what he’d originally adapted for Warner Bros. in 1990 (side note: Warner Bros. produced this play), and while lovers of the movie will certainly rejoice in that, fans of King’s novel would have perhaps preferred to see something fresh with a new adaptation, something that reads closer to King’s original prose. Large chunks of the dialogue from the movie remain intact, including Annie’s speech about how they always cheated in chapter plays (“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodee car!”), her explanation of why Paul’s new novel has no nobility (“What do you think I say when I go to the feed store in town, ‘Oh, now Wally, give me a bag of that F-in’ pig feed, and ten pounds of that bitchly cow corn!’”), her issues with Paul’s first draft of Misery’s Return (“Misery was buried in the ground at the end, Paul, so you’ll have to start there.”), the dialogue between them at the dinner table (“My secret is, I always use fresh tomatoes, never canned. And to give it that extra zip, I mix a little Spam with the ground beef.”), and the dramatic climax in which Paul screams bloody murder as he shoves his burning novel down Annie’s throat (“Eat it! Eat it till you choke, you sick twisted fuck!”).
The music is also the same. Well, almost. Michael Friedman provides some light tinkling of a score in the background at times when it’s much needed, but for the big scenes you’ve still got those same Liberace records of Annie’s playing the same tunes they played throughout the film (“I’ll Be Seeing You” is played as the light comes up, after the final curtain as come down).
Even the iconic hobbling scene plays out exactly as it did in the movie (in the book, Annie cuts off Paul’s foot with an axe), with “Moonlight Sonata” being played distantly in the background as Annie whispers, “Paul, do you know about the early days at the Kimberley diamond mines? Do you know what they did to the native workers who stole diamonds? Don’t worry. They didn’t kill them. That would be like junking a Mercedes just because it had a broken spring. No, they had to make sure they could go on working. But they also had to make sure they could never run away. …The operation was called hobbling.”
The hobbling scene is, as it should be, one of the highlights of the play. According to director Will Frears, it was also the most difficult scene to get right. Several early versions of the play were said to have left audiences feeling cheated. I can assure you, having sat front row, that no one, no matter how close they were to the stage, felt cheated by the hobbling scene at the Broadhurst Theater. You could not look, and yet you could not look away. The sledgehammer is brought up by Annie, and swung down hard. As you hear the crack! of Paul’s ankles smashing, you see his feet twisted in unnatural directions. When I attended the show, there were audible gasps from the audience, a couple of screams, and, for the most unsuspecting of the crowd, their hands covered their mouths for fear of regurgitating what was likely the fine food of Manhattan. More than this, however, was the sound of several voices heard asking the person next to them: How did they do it?
So, how did they do it?
Well, I’m not sure. But I’ll tell you what I think.
David Korins’ set is designed like a Victorian dollhouse, the entire play taking place on Annie’s front porch and inside her cottage home. The most masterful thing about the set is that it rotates. For instance, as Paul rolls himself in his wheelchair through Annie’s home, the set revolves with him, and we too roll merrily along, right through the bedroom doorway, on into the hall, and then straight into the kitchen. Just before the hobbling scene, Paul has been out on one of these runs, and fetched himself a butcher knife. Upon hearing Annie’s car returning home, he quickly wheels himself back to the bedroom and the set revolves just as quickly as he can push his wheels. As soon as he’s made it back to his bedroom and shut the door, the set revolves back to the hall where we see Annie come in, and we follow her into the kitchen where she realizes something is awry. By the time the set rotates back to Paul’s bedroom, Paul is now in bed and it is morning.
It all takes place in less the 3 minutes, and the time in which we don’t see Paul is less than 60 seconds, but in that time it is possible that he has situated himself in bed in such a way that his legs are no longer his own. They could, perhaps, be prosthetics. Incredibly, incredibly lifelike prosthetics that move and attempt to escape the straps Annie has tied him down with by morning.
Well anyway, however they did it, it worked like a charm. Like many theatrical productions (Phantom of the Opera comes to mind), there is an almost “magic show” element lent to this production, and not just because of the hobbling scene. When the town’s Sheriff, Buster, played here by Leon Addison Brown, hears Paul screaming and runs through the house to find him in the bedroom, we suddenly hear a bang! Blood comes out of Busters chest, and he falls to the floor, revealing Annie standing behind him with a shotgun. The back of Buster’s coat, which we saw just moments before as he was walking away from the front porch, now has a black hole in it, a rather large one that is gushing blood onto the bedroom floor. It’s around that time that you also realize blood from the shot has somehow splattered the bedroom walls.
Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is the climax, in which Paul hits Annie over the head with a typewriter. Actress Laurie Metcalf was no more than 10 feet away from me, and when she turned to the audience, there was blood suddenly pouring out of her forehead. Not out of a little tube that was placed in her hair – but directly out of the center of her forehead! No trick anywhere to be seen.
Oh, and one more thing. Somehow the scars and bruises on Paul’s face heal little by little throughout the show, with nary a moment for him to run backstage or get his makeup redone. Hmm.
It is these “magic show” moments that make Misery on Broadway worth the price of admission alone, especially for fans of the film, who here get to see it all recreated in live action before their very eyes.
To be fair to writer William Goldman, there are some differences between the movie and the play. The play is much more contained, the entirety of it taking place at Annie’s home, and between she and Paul. The only other character is Buster, who makes the first of his two (and a half) appearances around the halfway mark of the show.
And, of course, the actors are different.
Bruce Willis is most known by audiences as the hero of such action films as Die Hard, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Die Hard with A Vengeance, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Give Me Today To Die Hard Upon. (I made that last one up.) His character here is not much different, and that poses a problem in the suspense department. I know, I know. I promised to keep the critiquing at a minimum, and so I shall. But it is important to note that, as a fact, Bruce Willis hardly breaks a sweat during Misery on Broadway. Whereas James Caan looks scared to death wheeling himself through Annie’s home, for fear that she will return and catch him at any moment, Bruce Willis’s Paul Sheldon seems to know that somehow, he’s going to get out of there. He doesn’t doubt himself for a moment. He screams out in pain when Annie tortures him, but he never lets her, or you, see him sweat. Literally, or figuratively.
And somehow, though the play is more contained than the film, it is not as claustrophobic. Seeing the full room, the full house, and all of the action taking place there, removes the awkward closeness that was captured quite well both by King in his book and director Rob Reiner in the film. This, combined with Bruce Willis’s cool performance of Paul Sheldon, make the play (with the exception of the hobbling scene) not very scary. Not even very suspenseful.
To counterbalance Willis’s cool nature, Laurie Metcalf (famous for her turn as the odd but lovable sister Jackie on TV’s Roseanne) as Annie Wilkes is a loose cannon. Unlike Kathy Bates, who appears somewhat demure, humble and sweet as saccharin during the film’s opening moments, Laurie’s Annie is a wild woman right from the start. She is erratic, neurotic and jumpy with a sadistic and manic depressive twist.
“Haaaaaa-eeeey,” she drawls out in a strange tone, the first words we hear from her and the first words in the play. “Hey. Hey there. I’m your number one fan! Yes, I am. And let me tell you there is NO number two!” she continues, more resonant of Jack Nicholson in The Shining than Kathy Bates in, well… anything.
Laurie is hypnotic to watch as Annie because she plays her like an utter loon. It’s over-the-top melodrama that tells us straight from the get-go that our Paul’s in trouble and this woman should be locked away in a funny farm.
At the same time, the performance is genuine, and that is credited to Laurie’s acting chops. A stage veteran, having performed in countless shows over the past several decades, she reveals the multi-dimensional nature of Annie, having us feel as much sorrow for her as we do terror.
Should the other elements in the play have created an equally terrifying atmosphere, Misery would have scared the socks off of just about any theater goer.
Instead, it merely leaves you feeling like you’ve just witnessed a lukewarm fanboy telling of one of Stephen King’s greatest stories. But, as I say, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds.
That’s the thing about Stephen King stories.
They’re like sex or pizza. Even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good.
Jason Sechrest writes a monthly column for Cemetery Dance Online called, “What I Learned From Stephen King.” He began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly, Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.