A Story about a 1980s Captive Who Goes through Much ‘Misery’

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Misery

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

I must be the only American who has not seen the movie Misery, that won Kathy Bates her Oscar. It is on television all the time and I keep missing it. I finally caught up with the story in New York last week. The 1987 Stephen King story has now been turned into a play starring Bruce Willis as a captive best-selling writer and Laurie Metcalf as his sinister abductor.

The year 1987 was full of news. American hostage William Buckley was killed in Lebanon. The Iran-contra scandal was at full force. The Iraqis accidentally fired missiles that killed 37 on a U.S. naval vessel in the Persian Gulf. Margaret Thatcher was elected to a third term as Britain’s Prime Minister. The French finally caught up with Nazi henchman Klaus Barbie and sentenced him to life in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Rotary Clubs had to let women in to their meetings. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl and the Minnesota Twins took the World Series.

And Stephen King’s fictitious writer Paul Sheldon, author of a long line of hit romance books about a woman, Misery Chastain, drives his car off a roadway during a storm in Colorado. A woman driving behind him, Annie, saves his life and brings him to her home nearby, where she nurses him back to health. She has to do it alone she tells him, because the roads are snowbound and she can’t get him to a hospital and the snow drifts prevent any ambulance from getting to her home to rescue him.

She does a good job, giving him pain killing pills, fixing his broken legs and keeping him warm and comfortable in a guest room in her home, constantly assuring him that she is “your number one fan.” And then, about twenty minutes into the show, after she discovers that in his latest manuscript he killed off her favorite character, she snaps at him that she is never going to let him leave her house – he is her hostage.

This new version of Misery, at the Broadhurst Theater on West 44th Street, is a good play, full of suspense and intrigue.  It is not a great play, and Bruce Willis is not as good as he was in many of his movies, but still, Misery is a fun night out in the theater and a nice look at the snowbound world of Colorado in 1987 (and you know why he can’t call for help with his cell phone, don’t you?).

The play just runs ninety minutes and that short time frame permits director Will Frears to capture all of the drama in the story without letting any slow moments creep into the drama. Frears works well with his actors and does a wonderful job with the revolving set. You really do believe you are watching two people trapped in a storm in snowy New England in the ‘80s.

The show’s set by David Korins is sensational. It is built on a revolving platform and has many rooms of the house on it, plus the front, exterior of the house and its porch, covered in snow. People travel from room to room as the set turns and its gives the play a movie-like feel.

The play unfolds rapidly, even though it has only two main characters (plus a sheriff) and you can try to think your way out of danger just like the hostage writer des. It doesn’t work, though, because he is bedridden or in a wheel chair and unable to escape. Is his fate sealed?

Ms. Metcalf is a tornado on stage, strangling every bit of bizarre behavior out of Annie. She screams and yells, falls in love, runs for her rifle, laughs, cries, spins around in circles, widens her eyes in joy and shuts them in anger. She is the heart and soul of the play from the first moment she slowly walks on to the stage to the last, terrifying moment of the show. She is a delight.

Bruce Willis is very good as Paul, the writer, but he plays him in a way that is too laconic and laid back. He may be trying to recreate the ‘everyman’ writer but he needs to put more passion into the role. Nobody just shrugs when a rifle is pointed at their head, as he does. Willis needs more zip to make Paul the writer more believable.

The play is an interesting history note because King wrote this hostage story, set in New England, dozens of hostages were being taken world-wide and stories about them were constantly in the news. It had become an epidemic. They were grabbed for political reasons in South and Central America and also for financial ransoms. Criminals in those countries perfect their trade and today, nearly forty years later, hostage taking is a cottage industry there.

The play says a lot about the life of the captive, too. How do you treat a captive that you are holding for some reason? Are you nice? Harsh? Threatening? American history is full of stories of captives being taken, especially by Native American tribes in the 1700s, and treated quite well. Several women reported that their life in captivity was relatively pleasant. Paul Sheldon’s certainly was not.

PRODUCTION: The play was produced by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and Castle Rock Entertainment. Scenic Design: David Korins, Costumes: Ann Roth, Lighting: David Weiner Sound: Darron I. West. Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet, Christian-Kelly Sordelet. The show is directed by Will Frears. It runs through February 14, 2016.

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