When the play, Misery was first announced, I was lukewarm in my excitement. The Broadway stage version of the fantastic 1990 Stephen King based movie that brought the scary phrase ‘I am your number one fan’ into our culture, sounded like a good idea. It had all the ingredients of a great stage adaptation. The story itself, in that it takes place basically in one remote cabin, is tailor made for a creepy claustrophobic thriller of a play. And when was there last a good exciting stage thriller? Was it Deathtrap? Mousetrap? Some other type of trap?
Well this show feels like it became a trap to the creative team that was assembled. From the outside, this must have seemed easy. Basically a two-person play with one other small part, the small town Colorado sheriff (a sweet but ultimately unconvincing Leon Addison Brown). The two exciting lead parts; perfect for big named talent. Catnip to Broadway producers. One set; a lovely detailed revolving cabin set designed by David Korins. And an intense scare-filled story of confinement, captivity, abuse, and fan-love gone awry.
But in that same story, there lies a few big bear-traps that the playwright (William Goldman) and the director (Will Frears) got ensnared in. The biggest one, and one I fear got the best of them, was that the male lead, the famous writer Paul Sheldon (a game but disappointing Bruce Willis) is basically bedridden or at best, wheelchair-bound the whole play. For this to work on stage, that part needed a lot more help then James Caan did in the movie. Willis needs to engage us and we need to feel his fear, his pain, his anger, and his determination, all while staying stuck in bed or in that wheelchair. Caan had the use of closeups and film editing, but Willis does not have that luxury, and we feel that lack. This becomes the big fail in the play adaptation. Whether it’s coming from the play, the direction, or the performance, there was no escalation of fear and helplessness, nor did I feel the desperation, anxiety or stress as Paul’s situation worsens, especially in those scenes when he manages to escape the bedroom. Willis just fell flat.
The one other trap, one that they basically avoided, was the firm stamp Kathy Bates had on the part of Annie Wilkes. (Fun fact; Stephen King vetoed an early stage adaptation that was to star Julia Roberts, because Annie is a “brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.”) As I said, I was lukewarm when the show was first announced, but a recasting of the role of Annie changed that. Laurie Metcalf, most famously known for playing the sister on the hit TV show, Roseanne (and more importantly for her numerous amazing roles on stage, The Other Place, being just one of my favorites), was taking over that delicious role that helped make Bates a household name (and gave her an Oscar and a Golden Globe). This seemed like perfect casting to me. Metcalf is one of those gifted stage actors that can pull off the duality and the complexity that makes Annie such an engaging and terrifying character. In the film, we couldn’t take our eyes off Kathy Bates, and Metcalf should be the same on the stage.
And I was right in that assumption. Metcalf grabs onto that role and runs with it. She makes it all her own, trying hard to not just mimic Bates, but create a real and true Annie of her own; girlish, adoring, desperate, deadened, lonely, dangerous, and angry. Quite a combination, I’d say and she succeeds, more or less, except for a few scenes that fell a bit flat, like the big hobbling scene. Technically, well done, but emotionally, it lacked intensity. But here is the difficult part. Metcalf, in this production at least, is being asked to carry the whole thing. And saddled with the flatness and clumsiness of the play, the lack of a backstory for Annie (in the movie, we hear a lot about her violent past from the sheriff), and the rest of this staging, Annie’s and Metcalf’s shoulders are just not brawny enough to bear that. Metcalf, like Annie, is strong enough to pull Paul from a car wreck, nurse him back to health, but not strong enough to make him love her.
In looking back, all the lines that made Bates shine are in the play. (check it out: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100157/quotes). Every ‘cookadoddie’, ‘lying ol’ dirty birdy’, and ‘Mr. Man’ has found its way into the play, and for this we are thankful (sadly Misery the pig never makes an appearance, the real one nor the heavy doorstop one that is so crucial to the ending), but herein lies another problem. How to do that, and still surprise us and scare us? On this note, I’m not going to say too much about how this play ends, except that it felt too false, too quick, and without any of the sense of danger, excitement, shock, or fear. And that last speech just falls flat; dull, like the majority of this play. This Misery, like Misery Chastain, is dead, and for all the hard work Metcalf does, she can’t bring her back to life on her own, she needs Willis to do it; and in the immortal words of Annie, “Now that’s an oogie mess”.