Bridge Of Spies starts with a nickel and ends with a dollar. Mark Rylance starts with a dollar and ends with a nickel. That, at least, is one way of looking at this actor’s extraordinary segue from his Oscar-nominated portrayal of unshakeable Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in the Steven Spielberg film, to the role of Ron, the gag-prone novice fisherman he is now playing on the Brooklyn waterfront in Nice Fish.
“Rylance is shown trying to make a hole in the ice with a large hand drill. He is outfitted in oversize orange gear — as if the Michelin Man had dressed up as Donald Trump for Halloween.”
The Spielberg film opens on this same waterfront, overlooking the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges across the East River. Abel is first seen in his apartment at an easel, finishing a self-portrait. Easel and palette in hand, he leaves for the park, where he calmly picks up a split nickel containing stolen information — only to be caught, tried and convicted despite the ardent defense put up by his lawyer, played by Tom Hanks. Possible salvation comes in the form of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, who survives being shot down by the Russians and declining to make use of the silver dollar containing a cyanide-dipped pin he has been instructed to scratch himself with in case of capture.
The story behind Nice Fish is somewhat simpler: It’s running at St. Ann’s Warehouse (its gorgeous new theater in DUMBO may be the best performance space in the city) after previous productions at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA.
Rylance is a British-born actor who spent much of his youth in the American Midwest, territory he knows as intimately as Garrison Keillor knows the Lutheran residents of Lake Woebegone. Nice Fish is primarily a collaboration between the actor and Minnesota prose-poet Louis Jenkins, with a major assist from director Claire van Kampen. Jenkins’ work tends, like Keillor’s monologues abot the fictional Minnesota town, toward stream-of-consciousness musings that begin in a specific moment before spiraling off into morality tales or nonsense, take your pick. Either way, the result is entertainment of an extremely high order: this is the kind of play that gives situation comedy its good name.
The most recognizable link between Rudolf Abel and Ron is Rylance’s animated eyebrows. Whether playing the unflappable spy who will not betray his country or the freezing fisherman who could be a relation of Samuel Beckett’s existential clowns, Rylance’s eyebrows convey volumes simply by arching: drawbridge up, drawbridge down. They can indicate bemusement or devilry; fear or placid detachment. He hardly needs to speak.
The situation is this: Ron and his more experienced friend Erik (the splendid Jim Lichtscheidl), are camped on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere (the chilling, serene set is by Todd Rosenthal, the northern lighting is by Japhy Weidman) at the end of ice-fishing season, which makes their present status precarious. In the opening scene, Ron is shown trying to make a hole in the ice with a large hand drill. He’s outfitted in oversize orange gear, as if the Michelin Man had dressed up as Donald Trump for Halloween. Erik follows with a power drill that sounds like a jack hammer. Over the course of the next 95 minutes, Erik will try to teach his pal the basics of ice fishing despite Ron’s greater interest in playing with one of those talking basses you see on barroom walls, telling stories from his life, and guzzling beer.
Their idyll is punctuated by visits from a bureaucratically inclined fish cop (Bob Davis), a sagacious young woman (Kayli Carter) and her loopy grandfather (Raye Birk), who offers encouragement to Erik’s lures and enumerates the aesthetic preferences of Old Man Winter. The final scene, its poignance as well-earned as the laughs that came before, reminded me of “Rene And Georgette Magritte After The War,” the ode to aging by Paul Simon, another great stream-of-consciousness writer.
Rylance may well take off on a brilliant film career after his beautifully measured performance in Bridge Of Spies. But his astonishing gifts are well-known to New Yorkers for his performances in Shakespeare classics and modern works, notably Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, in which he played Rooster Byron, a former Evel Knievel-type, foul-mouthed, booze-and-pot addled Pied Piper to local teens in trouble. Nice Fish unfolds like a lark, to badly commingle animal metaphors, but resonates with meaning well below the — well, you know — below the surface.