UPDATE, Monday AM with Butterworth film credits.
What you want to know is this: Hugh Jackman is electrifying in The River, a concentrated, mysterious fish tale of a play. Seeing him onstage in one of Broadway’s most intimate theaters confers a sense of privilege upon the audience something akin to having Mick Jagger show up at your cocktail party just to shoot the breeze. You may not believe your luck.
Forget the fact that he is too old by a decade or more to be playing a bachelor whose secluded cabin in the woods above a riverbank appears to be date bait for attractive younger women. That fact merely adds another layer of meaning (or confusion, depending on your receptiveness to such matters) to Jez Butterworth’s new play, a hairpin turn away from his last Broadway outing, the sensationally funny, wildly overpopulated, anti-capitalist rant Jerusalem. (He’s also the now extremely pro-capitalist action-film polymath whose credits include James Bond movies and Edge Of Tomorrow, along with the James Brown biopic Get On Up.)
What the two plays have in common is a central character of irresistible charisma (performed in the earlier work by Mark Rylance) and complicated, possibly unnerving motivations. Here, Jackman’s character is simply called The Man, and Butterworth has him reveal everything we need to know about him in the opening scene — even before we register the significance of what we’re witnessing.
“Quick! Come here. Don’t miss this. Quickly,” says The Woman (Cush Jumbo, an exotic beauty with intelligence flashing from her sultry eyes), emerging, presumably from the unseen bedroom, and staring out the window of the bare-bones rustic set by Ultz. “You are missing the most incredible thing.”
Enter The Man in full fishing regalia, counting off the gear he’s packed or missing: torch, reel, spare reel, along with the arcane names of various flies.
The Woman is awestruck by the sunset, insisting that he share this with her. He’s preoccupied with the task at hand and insists off-handedly that all sunsets are the same, which he demonstrates, when challenged by her to describe it, by reeling off the particulars in exquisite detail: “August. Low cloud. Blood red as far as the headland turning to lilac-blue wisps above the bluff. Trails of apricot, feathering out through blue, dark blue, and aquamarine to an iris ring of obsidian and above that the Evening Star.”
He hasn’t once actually looked out the window, and Jackman – buff, intense, yet incapable of being anything other than affable – is at once bemused, annoyed and a little smug. “It’s little moments like that which make it special, isn’t it?” The Woman retorts slyly, just shy of disappointedly.
Disappointment will come in greater measure, however, as late night seeps into early morning and a planned hike to catch the silver sea trout that have waited for the new moon to begin their run evolves into a darker tale.
Suddenly The Man is alone in the room, dialing emergency services to report The Woman missing, she having disappeared during their expedition. Or has she? Suddenly he’s expertly gutting and prepping a fat sea trout she’s caught for their romantic repast. But wait — this is not The Woman at all. It’s The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly, quicker on the uptick than The Woman), and maybe she wasn’t lost at all.
Though The River unfolds over the course of a single weekend, it braids several encounters into one replicated event, like that spectacular yet ordinary sunset. Is The Man a cad, a lucky bloke, a sinister force?
Damned if I know, or if any of us knows by the end of the one-act’s 90 minutes’ running time. But we have been drawn by these compelling performances, under the astute direction of Butterworth’s frequent collaborator, Ian Rickson, into a strange dimension where happenstance and experience intermingle, which seems a lot like life. To paraphrase Robert Hunter, what a short strange trip it’s been.