January 13, 2016

"Misery" Isn't Completely Miserable

Everything I've read about Stephen King suggests he's a really nice guy. He's been married to the same woman for 45 years. He gives away about $4 million a year to worthy causes. And he works hard, having published more than 50 novels and four times as many short stories. But I haven't read much by Stephen King or seen the movies based on what he's written because his books are designed to creep people out and I'm a notorious scaredy cat.

That means I've never seen "Misery," the movie that won Kathy Bates an Oscar for her portrayal of a crazed super fan named Annie Wilkes who rescues a famous writer from a car crash and holds him hostage in her isolated farmhouse until he agrees to resurrect the heroine he's killed off in her favorite romance series.

It also means I had trepidations about seeing the new stage adaptation, even though it was written by the much revered William Goldman (yep, the same guy who wrote the classic theater book "The Season," as well as the screenplays for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "All the President's Men"—and "Misery").

Reviews, to be kind, have not been kind for this production. The combined grades of the professional critics averaged just 48 on Show-Score (click here to read some of the withering remarks)

But to my surprise, and relief, I actually ended up not minding the show at all. Although that's probably for the very reason that others didn't like it: it's not scary. 

In fact, Misery is so tension-free that I never had to hold my hand in front of my eyes and peek through my fingers at any point during its 90-minute running time, not even when Bruce Willis, playing the writer, wheels through the house while Annie is out, a scene made almost cinematic by David Korins' nifty revolving set and Michael Friedman's spooky interstitial music (click here to sample it).

Elizabeth Marvel was originally supposed to play Annie but dropped out before rehearsals began and Laurie Metcalf stepped in. At home in all kinds of roles, Metcalf is probably a better choice than the often-eccentric Marvel. I mean if you were doing a production of The Wizard of Oz, you'd cast Metcalf as the always-supportive Scarecrow, while Marvel might make more sense as the leader of the Winged Monkeys.

And indeed Metcalf commits fully to the role of Annie. She makes it clear that the woman is a nut case and she doesn't back away from the campiness that has developed around the character over the decades. But she also taps into the pathos of a lonely woman who becomes enthralled with the fantasy life she's found in a series of books because her own life is so barren.

Misery also marks Willis' Broadway debut and is the first time the movie star has been on a New York stage since he understudied Ed Harris in the 1983 off-Broadway production of Fool for Love.

Since his character spends most of his time in a bed or a wheelchair while plotting his escape, Willis doesn't really have all that much to do. And although he still tripped over the occasional line seven weeks after the show opened, he did his part well enough. In fact, I'm giving him points for being smart enough to pick a piece that couldn't embarrass him too much (click here to read an uncomfortable interview he did with The NewYork Times).

However the bad word-of-mouth has been keeping theatergoers away and the show, which started its run at the Broadhurst Theatre with standing room only, has seen its audience dwindle to houses only two-thirds full and is now limping toward a close on Feb.14.

But Willis super fans and those of the movie (I could tell who they were at my performance because they not only had grins on their faces both before the show and after but squealed during Misery's most infamous scene) may have a good time.

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