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A CurtainUp Review
The River

A fish story= A series of lies or exaggerations; a false or improbable explanation ;

You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.—Heraclitus . . .I cried. I don't know why. It wasn't because I lost my fish. It was because I had seen something I never knew was there. A force. A spirit. I'd felt it buckle and shudder in my seven-year- old hands. And it thrilled me. And it scared the life out of me.
— The Man remembering his "the fish that got away" aspect of the fish story as a tall tale that he experienced as a youngster
 The River "Hugh Jackman
In an interview around the time The Night Heron opened in New York in 2003, Jezz Butterworth declared "I love that feeling when a play opens and you don't know where you are and what's going on." In The River that sense of uncertainty not only persists throughout its 85 minutes but may leave you wondering about what to make of it all the way home. Is it Butterworth's version of the traditional fish story or tall tale? Is it all an illusion? A ghost story? A murder mystery? Do women we see represent countless others, symbolizing all the fish that get away from fishermen? And to extend the metaphor, is the nameless main character's passion for trout fishing a metaphor for the elusiveness of true human connection?

No uncertainty about two things though. . .

1. Butterworth's latest play, isn't bloated with larger-than-life-characters hit, Jerusalem. Yet, though smaller and more low key, it's one of this season's hottest tickets. Dominic West originated the role of the fisherman who seems to love women as much as trout in London where he's hugely popular. The ticket selling magnet for this production is hunky X-Man Hugh Jackman.

2. As he has in his previous plays, Jez Butterworth continues to follow in the footsteps of Harold Pinter, thus also Samuel Beckett, who was Pinter's role model. While the character at the center of The River seems a pleasant enough fellow, a Pinteresque aura of something not quite right hangs over the remote cabin beside a river on the summer night when the sea trout are running. What takes place in designer Ultz's finely detailed cottage is heavily punctuated with wordless moments and meaningful looks. . .and, yes, sly humor.

The plot, or as much as I feel free to detail without risking spoiler accusations, begins with Jackman's The Man being visited by The Woman (Cush Jumbo), who he has invited to join him for what's apparently an annual fly fishing expedition — a magical event in his life about which we learn little else. But no sooner does Jumbo's woman exit the living room/kitchen area for an upstage bedroom than out comes the third character, The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly, reprising the role she played in London).

Since the women don't look alike (Jumbo has a pixie hairdo, Donnelly has longer, darker hair) we experience the first of many questions to ponder. Considering that The Man's interaction with the first woman is repeated with the second, it's easy to suspect that the fish he plans to catch are symbolic.

Ian Rickson, who helmed The River (as well as Jerusalem and the London production of Night Heron), has found his way into the play's mix of realistic and fantastical elements. And, with the play no longer in the Royal Court's 100-seat Jerwood Theatre Upstairs he has also managed to have his actors comfortably play to a 775-seat house in which the stage is encircled on three sides. That's not to say that a chamber piece like this wouldn't be more satisfying in a smaller theater. But judging from the packed house on the night I attended, in which every standing spot at the side sections was occupied, this limited run needs a big house to accommodate that huge Hugh Jackman fan base.

As for Jackman, he gives a subtle, introspective performance that's both full of sportsman's macho and emotional duality. He handles both the fisherman's straightforward lingo, romantic declarations and the playwright's poetic detours with easy panache. The monologue quoted at the top of this review about a fly-fishing outing with his uncle beautifully conveys the special magic fishing has for some people.

Besides ably handling the nuances of the dialogue, the actor also deftly prepares a large sea trout, actually caught by The Woman, Actually we see him cooking a magnificent sea trout specimen actually not caught by him but by Jumbo's Woman. The scene, about a third into the one-act play, in which he not only fillets that fish, but cuts and dices vegetables, is a non-verbal highlight. Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly intriguingly link the two women even as they create distinct portraits (Jumbo as the more assertive one, and Donnelly less confrontational).

Since my own favorite Butterworth play was Parlour Song, I can't say that I would be willing to stand for 85 minutes to see The River. Yet, besides its appeal to Hugh Jackman fans, it does have its charms as an enigmatic chamber piece in which director Rickson has admirably brought all its assets together. Incidental music and sound design by Stephen Warbeck and Ian Dickinson, and Charles Balfour's atmospheric lighting, further enhance and add to the expert performances and the combination of mystery, folklore and lyricism.

For our London critic's review of the play go here

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The River by Jeff Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
Cast: Hugh Jackman (The Man), Laura Donnelly (The Other Woman), Cush Jumbo (The Woman)
Scenic and Costume Design: Ultz
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Music: Stephen Warbeck

Stage Manager: Michael J. Passaro
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (enter on West 50th Street between Broadway & Eighth Avenue
From 10/31/14; opening 11/16/14; closing 2/08/15

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