August 12, 2023

"The Shark is Broken" Makes a Soft Splash

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. 

August 5, 2023

The Dog Emerges as Best in Show in "Toros"

Why is Frank Wood, not just a stalwart of New York theater but a Tony winner, lying on the floor and playing a dying dog? That’s the question I kept asking myself as I sat watching Toros, the new play that opened this week for a brief run through Aug. 13 in Second Stage’s uptown space at the McGinn/Cazale Theater. 

And unlike the pooch in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, Wood’s dog isn’t even the title character. That honor goes to a twentysomething named Alex who has returned to his native Madrid after a failing attempt to make it in New York. His friends—frenemies really—ironically call him Toro, Spanish for bull, because he’s so meek.

Toro’s supposed bestie is Juan, an obnoxious rich kid who works for his realtor father, lives with his parents and spends most of his time in their cluttered basement. drinking, getting high and putting together lame rap beats that he believes will make him a star d.j.

The two other regulars who hang out in the basement are Andrea, who went to high school with Alex and Juan and isn’t sure which of them she’s now drawn too; and Tica, Juan’s family dog who is on her last legs and dragging herself around the room whenever she can muster up the strength to move at all. 

Playwright Danny Tejera clearly wants to say something about the ennui of millennials in his native Spain but he’s better at indicating the fecklessness of his characters (there are repeated episodes of Juan just standing around and bopping to his beats) than he is at digging into what’s caused their stagnation or explaining what brings about the eventual changes in their behavior.

But Tejera does have a flair for natural-sounding dialog, especially the put-downs, repeat phrases and awkward silences that can pass for conversation among people who spend too much time together.

He's also studied with Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and his play exhibits some of the mischievously surreal elements that mark their works. The prime example being Tica, who, at least in Wood’s totally committed performance, comes off as the show's most sympathetic character.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch seems on shakier ground. So some of what she and Tejera do together works (an imaginatively mimed sex scene) but some of it doesn’t (the reveal and laborious disassembly of the family car).

On the plus side, Abubakr Ali, Juan Castano and the actor who goes by the single lower-cased letter b are all convincing as Toros' anchorless trio. Their characters may remind some theatergoers of the similar threesome in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.  Lonergan’s play may be better, but it doesn’t have Tica.