The cover of the playbill for the Broadway production of Misery (playing through Feb. 14 at the Broadhurst Theatre) features the play’s title in antique font and an evocative black and white photo of the “M” key on a typewriter. It’s highlighted between the question mark key and the “N,” but, of course, a plot point in Stephen King’s 1987 novel and Rob Reiner’s 1990 movie (starring Kathy Bates and James Caan) concerns the fact the “N” key on author Paul Shelton’s typewriter is missing. William Goldman, the film’s screenwriter who also wrote this theatrical version, keeps that detail in the play, but the playbill suffers from the same problem as the production — it favors a cool, creepy design without ever pausing to consider whether it works or makes sense.
King’s story, as most people already know, is a corker. After a car crash, best-selling author Paul Sheldon finds himself immobilized in the home of his No. 1 fan, Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a deadly cat lady. She actually owns a pet pig, named Misery, after the title character in Sheldon’s book series. King’s novel was not a psychologically deep study of Stockholm Syndrome or the cult of celebrity worship that leads to stalking. Yet it’s a terrific two-hander, and Reiner’s film was, by extension, great pulp. It’s always been amazing that Bates won Best Actress for it (the only Stephen King adaptation ever to win an Oscar), not because her committed, wheels-off-the-cart performance isn’t deserving, but because the material is such a non-prestige, good old campy time.
Luckily, director Will Frears and stars Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf are all in synch with the plot’s lack of serious intent. The opening scene is staged in near darkness, as Annie tends to Paul’s wounds while he’s still in a comatose state. When the lights come on in her house and the story proceeds, it’s thrilling to explore scenic designer David Korins’ (Hamilton) magnificent set, which rotates clockwise to reveal the precisely detailed interiors and snow-covered front exterior of Annie’s house. During wheelchair-bound Paul’s surreptitious exploration of the adjacent rooms while Annie is away, the turning of the stage gives the character the effective look of a mouse on a wheel. And Frears expertly choreographs Paul’s sweaty scramble back to his room before Annie discovers that he’s escaped. (In a clever touch, the living area is decorated with photos of Paul — which are actually, in fact, publicity shots of Bruce Willis.)
However, though the technical specs are excellent, the production suffers from a curious lack of tension. And, moreover, fun. The movie version had the benefit of close-ups, which Reiner took advantage of to the hilt, but in the play we feel too distanced from the intimacy and battle of wills that develops between Paul and Annie — or the notes of sympathy that is woven into each of them. Willis plays Paul with a flatness and passivity that feels too inert, even for a character who is bedbound. And as Annie, Laurie Metcalf is overly conscious of not echoing the line readings as they were delivered by Bates. During Annie’s famous freak-out over Paul’s decision to kill off his literary creation (“You murdered my Misery!”), Metcalf chooses the opposite tonal delivery for each of Bates’ lines. And unlike in the book and the film, there’s no grace period in which we discover that Annie is nuts. That’s a symptom of making a play from material that is extremely well known, but it renders a great-looking production somewhat — to use a word — hobbled. B–