Listening to the waves of laughter that greeted the new comedy The Shark is Broken made me wonder if we might be entering the era of jukebox plays that pander to the folks who love particular movies in the way that so many jukebox musicals now do.
For The Shark is Broken, which opened at the Golden Theatre this week, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the making of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.”
The movie famously chronicles the efforts of a local police chief, a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter to track down a great white shark that has begun attacking beachgoers at a summer resort town on Cape Cod. The play was conceived and co-written by Ian Shaw, the actor son of Robert Shaw who played the Ahab-like shark hunter (click here to read more about that).
The younger Shaw was only four years old when the movie came out and his dad would die of a heart attack four years later at the age of just 51. But Ian Shaw and his co-writer playwright Joseph Nixon have clearly poured over the many books, articles and recorded interviews (click here to see one) that over the years have recounted that famously troubled shoot. Plus as a family member, Ian also had access to a recently discovered drinking journal that Robert Shaw kept during his time filming the movie.
“Jaws” was originally budgeted at $3.5 million for a 55-day shooting schedule but ended up costing $7 million and shooting for 159 days. That was partly due to unpredictable weather but mainly because the mechanical sharks so central to the movie kept breaking down.
Spielberg, then just 27 years old, feared the movie would sink his still fledgling career. Instead it became a sensation, grossing $475 million, kickstarting the trend of action-oriented blockbusters that still define success in the movie business and creating a fandom that renews itself with each new generation of movie lovers.
During its 90-minute running time, The Shark is Broken imagines what happened as the movie’s three lead actors sat around waiting for the shark to be fixed and the filming to resume. Poetic license has clearly been taken. It’s unlikely that the three stars would have been marooned between takes in the claustrophobically small cabin of the boat that provides the play’s sole set.
Still kudos must go to set designer Duncan Henderson for recreating the exact look and feel of the boat in the movie and to lighting designer Jon Clark and video designer Nina Dunn for the stunning background visuals.
However too much of the show’s humor derives from having the characters make references to future events. For example, the play’s Shaw scoffs when he hears that Spielberg’s next movie is going to be about aliens and asks ”Whatever next? Dinosaurs?”
Of course most audience members know that the alien movie (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and the dinosaur movie (“Jurassic Park”) are going to be equally huge hits for Spielberg, which allows them to get the same self-congratulatory dopamine rush that they get when they hear familiar pop tunes in Moulin Rouge or the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise.
In fact, there’s a kind of “Behind The Music” vibe rippling through the entire play as it checks off the boxes of the best known stories about “Jaws.” Robert Shaw could be a blustery alcoholic. Check. Richard Dreyfuss, who played the self-assured scientist onscreen, was often annoyingly insecure off-screen. Check. Roy Scheider, who played the police chief, spent lots of time in the sun, burnishing his tan. Check.
And talk about fan service, there's even a scene in which the very fit Colin Donnell strips down to his skivvies so that his Scheider can sunbathe onstage and show off six-pack abbs that draw ooohs.
If there’s anything more than backstage gossip to this episodic show, which director Guy Masterson prosaically stages with repeated blackouts, it’s probably the theme of the connection, or misconnection, between fathers and sons.
Each of the three characters gets a scene in which he confides his regrets about his relationship with his father. Dreyfuss’ dad had too high expectations for his son. Scheider’s father was violent. Shaw’s drank heavily and committed suicide. The disclosures hint at depth but then skip right over it to the next joke.
With the help of some clever hair, makeup and costumes, the three stage actors look just like the film actors they’re playing. Donnell isn’t given much to do as Scheider but he still manages to convey the unforced confidence of the actor who died in 2008.
Meanwhile, Alex Brightman brings the manic energy that has become his trademark to the role of the equally manic Dreyfuss; his antics actually had his co-stars struggling not to break character and laugh during the performance my husband K and I attended.
Ironically, it is Ian Shaw’s portrayal of his father that is the show’s weakest link. He bears an almost uncanny resemblance to his dad and there are lovely moments when he recites the Shakespeare they both apparently loved. But Shaw too often veers into a caricature of the macho personae his father exhibited in the film and he leans so heavily into the elder Shaw’s native Lancastrian accent that it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying.
Yet writing the previous paragraph made me feel like a grinch because this play is so clearly a love letter from a son to a father he primarily got to know through the movies. And you’d have to have a harder heart than mine not to applaud that.