Given all my recent health issues, it seemed apropos that my first big trip since I’ve been off crutches was to see the Broadway adaptation of Misery, since the breaking of ankles is kind of a prominent plot point. If this didn’t give me PTSD, probably nothing else would.
I had been hoping to see the stage version of Misery since I heard it announced; this had less to do with any deep held passion for the original Stephen King book or the later film adaptation – though I enjoyed both of them – and more to do with the fact that I’ve had a crush on Bruce Willis since I was about ten years old. For the chance to be in the same room as him I probably would have been willing to sit through just about anything, so it was an added bonus that he was starring in a play that actually interested me. Even better was the person he was co-starring with – the great Laurie Metcalf, who, depending on your age, you either know as Roseanne’s sister Jackie on Roseanne or as Sheldon’s mom on The Big Bang Theory. I’ve always thought she was great, so the opportunity to see both of them on stage made this a no brainer. Despite the fact that I wasn’t sure if I was truly physically up to a day in the city (spoiler alert: I wasn’t), I planned a trip to go see Misery. The show is a limited engagement – only running through Valentine’s Day – so I figured it was now or never. Winter will arrive eventually and it’s a lot less fun getting around New York when it is a snowy, icy mess – even if you aren’t coming off a broken ankle.
I didn’t really have that high of hopes for the actual play as I wasn’t really sure how this story would transition from the page to the screen to the stage. Turns out that was a good instinct to have since while the play was in no means terrible, I don’t know if I would have been half as interested as I was without the two leads. What made the movie version of Misery so good was the intimacy and fear that it could slowly cultivate. By using camera angles and tight shots of the actors, Misery (the film) was able to create a feeling of claustrophobia for the viewer. You felt just as trapped as author Paul Sheldon in Annie’s farmhouse. Thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Kathy Bates, Annie is a formidable and terrifying force to be reckoned with and even if I didn’t find the big screen adaptation all that scary, per se, I did find that it could ramp up the tension and make you feel uneasy for the duration. There was a built in suspense to Misery (the movie) that Misery (the play) just can’t match.
For the uninitiated, Misery tells the tale of best-selling author Paul Sheldon, who is rescued by his “number one fan” Annie after a car accident that leaves him badly injured. Recovering in her remote farmhouse, Paul slowly discovers that no one knows where he is and that Annie has very little interest in him recovering enough to leave. Obsessed with his Misery book series and with a tenuous grasp on reality, Annie forces Paul to write a new story that rights the perceived wrongs of his last novel.
Of course, an issue with the stage production creating thrills and chills is that I already knew the story. It’s harder to create the same level of anxiety when people know all the beats that you are going to play. For the most part, the play follows the plot of the movie very closely. And yet it wasn’t just familiarity that eliminated any tension from this production; Misery the play was a much softer take on the story that seemed to look at its characters with bemusement rather than terror. I didn’t expect there to be as many laughs as there was in Misery, but in their inability to create the right atmosphere for the play to unfold, a lot of lines that might have played as slightly more menacing actually came across as more amusing. Annie from the movie haunted your nightmares; Annie from the play caused you to elbow your seatmate, roll your eyes and say “bitches be crazy.” There just isn’t the same intimacy in a play as can be created on the screen.
I thought that both Willis and Metcalf did a fine job, but since Willis wasn’t asked to show much of his range – as he has in some Wes Anderson movies or even in Pulp Fiction – you were never really that concerned for Paul. Of COURSE he’s going to escape this – he’s John McClane! The decision to have Willis play Paul as a stoic wisecracker was of course fun to watch as it was the most familiar version of Willis, but it also did nothing to add to the peril of the play. Willis’ Paul would occasionally grimace in pain, but for the most part he never showed any amount of fear about his precarious situation. A slightly more vulnerable performance might have done more to build the suspense. I was delighted to see Willis in person, but I think a slightly different take on the role may have done more to advance the story that they were trying to tell.
Metcalf, on the other hand, was handicapped more by her physical demeanor than her choice in performance. I was perfectly ok with her depiction of Annie as slightly more lovelorn than she was in the movie, though I do think that they did the character a disservice by not including more of her dark backstory. Rather, it was hard to believe the physically the slight Metcalf would have any chance at overpowering or even carrying the action star Willis. Bates was a presence on the screen, both in her performance and in her stature. It was kind of hard to take Metcalf seriously as a real threat. She did a very nice job with the various mood swings that Annie encounters, but I think she lacked the physicality that this role really needed.
What was perhaps the most surprising to me was the number of people in the audience who were clearly not familiar with either the book or the film, based on their reaction to some scenes in the play. Perhaps the most iconic moment in the movie is the hobbling scene, but when this happened on stage so many people gasped and reacted so much that it was clear that they had no idea what was coming. I found this extremely odd, since it seems to me the audience for a stage adaptation of Misery would be people who already knew the story, either from the book or the film. I think I may have even stage whispered “did no one see this movie?” to my friend as I was so surprised by the audience response. Those people were probably way more impressed by this play than I was. I also may have whispered “It’s hobbling time!” when Metcalf came out with the sledgehammer. I don’t think that’s a catchphrase that will catch on.
I’m glad I went to see the play and that I had kept my expectations pretty low. I don’t know that there is a stage version of Misery that could have worked successfully, but this version wasn’t it. While it was a thrill to see Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in person, there was very little tension or thrills built into this production. It dutifully lumbered on hitting all the important plot points from the source material without much added excitement or personality. It was just kind of dull, which is the last thing I expected. Probably for the best that this is a limited engagement as this wasn’t worth tying up Willis and Metcalf for very long. Hopefully Willis’ second foray on Broadway will be a little more exciting than his first. Glad I saw it, but can’t recommend it.