Larded with revivals, movie adaptations and Hollywood stars, Broadway is largely a play-it-safe zone these days. Yet Misery–which boasts both a presold property and a bona fide movie star, Bruce Willis, in his Broadway debut–is a riskier venture than one might think. For one thing, it’s that rarest of theater specimens: a go-for-broke horror-thriller. Sure, there’s the occasional murder mystery or twisty psychodrama. But a story that puts its protagonist in real physical peril, ratchets up the suspense and culminates with a violent confrontation rather than just heated words? On the screen, from James Bond to The Hunger Games, it’s as easy as next week’s box office smash. Onstage, next to impossible.
In some respects, Misery is ideally suited to the stage, with just two main characters and the action confined to a remote cabin, where a famous romance novelist, hurt in a car crash, is nursed back to health and then terrorized by his “No. 1 fan.” It has a showy and surefire leading role in the deranged Annie Wilkes, and stage vet Laurie Metcalf has a whale of a time with it. She’s less overtly nutty than Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for the 1990 film, but more down-to-earth, ferocious and frightening.
The problem is on the other end of the hypodermic needle. As bedbound writer Paul Sheldon, Willis is bland and remote. But the fault lies less with his competent performance than in the limits of the stage. Paul is largely immobile throughout most of the play, and we depend on seeing his facial reactions: the rising fear, the silent winces and winks and wheels-turning-inside cogitation that James Caan conveyed so effectively in the movie. But he had closeups.
Still, for most of its compact 90 minutes, Misery is shrewd and gripping. The film’s screenwriter, William Goldman, wrote the efficient adaptation, and director Will Frears manages the claustrophobic tension well, helped immensely by David Korins’ revolving set, which transports us through the house as Paul makes futile attempts at escape. Misery seems to have caused nothing but misery for most critics, who never much cotton to these lowbrow genre pieces. But I found it a startling and satisfying break from Broadway routine. Which I guess makes me its No. 1 fan.
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.
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