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If anyone’s ever earned the right to star in a play as a character called—simply—The Man, it is Hugh Jackman. In Jez Butterworth’s The River, a mind-bending, occasionally precious, always tense chamber drama, the star wears that moniker proudly. Fit as a fiddle, with biceps the size of a child’s head, Jackman is the literal stand-in for the playwright’s slightly idealized version of the virile male. When a woman proclaims to him that she wants to ”eat him whole” during the proceedings, you can’t help but think most of the audience feels the exact same way.
It’s a smart way inside Butterworth’s perhaps most enigmatic, interpretive work to date; knowing Jackman as well as we do creates an immediate in that might have been more work for a lesser known actor. The Man is a devoted fisherman living in a cobweb-strewn wood cabin, who entertains ladies with fishing lessons and prepared meals-in one of the play’s most inviting stretches, Jackman chops vegetables and guts a fish before your eyes in preparation for what looks like a superb roasted pesce.
We meet two women (the vivacious Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly, the latter a visual ringer for Jackman’s Les Misérables costar Anne Hathaway) who—during the course of the 85-minute play—personify The Man’s objects of affection. Butterworth, whose work always has a mythic tinge (especially in his epic Jerusalem, with its titanic role for the great Mark Rylance), curiously withholds vital information so that you’re never quite sure if you’re watching a romantic melodrama, a biblical treatise, or maybe even a horror tale. Additionally, the two women never share the stage. Are they real? The same lady, perhaps? Is The Man going to do something terrible to them?
The tightly-concealed intentions of The River are bound to make some audience members want to jump ship almost immediately, especially since this once-modest play has been wrought larger, going from a 93-seat theater in London to a 776-seat, but still relatively intimate, Broadway house. And that change often results in small moments ballooning unsteadily into bigger ones. But director Ian Rickson never skimps on the play’s curdling, spare dread, and gets first-rate work from his actors; Jackman, best known for his song-and-dance brio on stage, finally gets to take a firm bite out of stoicism, and he’s a terrific orator to boot. (Butterworth’s speeches about the spiritualism of sea trout would sound downright silly coming out of many other actors’ mouths.) The play definitely makes you work, but if you’re willing to paddle through the murky water, one thing becomes clear: The River‘s wild. B+