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Theatre in Review: The Shark is Broken (Golden Theatre)

Ian Shaw. Photo: Matthew Murphy

To give you a sense of what Broadway is like these days, last week I saw back-to-back productions based on Steven Spielberg films; clearly, pre-existing IP rules. First up: Back to the Future (which SS executive-produced in 1985). Next: The Shark is Broken, a memoir of shenanigans on the set of Jaws, the film that put him at the top of the Hollywood food chain. I can't wait to see what somebody does with Schindler's List.

But I digress, which is easy to do when discussing The Shark is Broken, an amiable, funny, beautifully acted piece that remains in dramatic dry dock all night long. It is, in its oddball way, a very personal project, being co-written (with Joseph Nixon), by Ian Shaw, son of the great Robert, whose performance as the Hemingway-esque shark hunter Quint is one of Jaws' glories. The playwright pays tribute to his father in this boozy, zinger-filed comedy about creeping ennui on the troubled production's set. Contrary to the popular imagination, making a movie, the play insists, is tantamount to being trapped in a real-life edition of No Exit.

In the case of Jaws, this may be so. The shoot lasted three times longer than scheduled and went more than 100% over budget -- challenges included the vagaries of location work and the three malfunction-prone pneumatic sharks -- leaving plenty of time for the stars to get on each other's nerves. Shaw, a roaring, drunken, orator with a lengthy theatrical resume and distinguished side careers as a novelist and playwright, amuses himself by baiting co-star Richard Dreyfuss, here portrayed as a kind of neurotic terrier, forever yapping about the delays, the seafood, and the heat while battling seasickness at every turn. ("No good ever happened to any Jew on the water," he snarls, brooking no contradiction.) Keeping things on an even keel is laid-back Roy Scheider, soaking up a few rays between camera setups and offering tidbits from the Times about soon-to-be ex-president Richard Nixon. (To be clear, Spielberg remains offstage, apparently trying to get one of those damn sharks to work.)

It's a brief, chatty, evening of Hollywood gossip and inside-showbiz wisecracks. We learn that Charlton Heston and Jon Voight were the first choices for Scheider and Dreyfuss' roles. Dreyfuss complains about shooting American Graffiti and obsessively tracks the critical reception of his latest project, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. (His frank lust for stardom is a major irritant with Shaw.) The name-dropping script includes Richard Benjamin, Peter O'Toole, Dustin Hoffman, and George Lucas. In one of the most amusing bits, Shaw gives Dreyfuss some entirely spurious advice about contacting his good friend and colleague Harold Pinter, gleefully anticipating the disaster that will follow. We also see the evolution of the "Indianapolis" speech from Jaws, beginning as a five-page stemwinder before it is streamlined into the film's memorable centerpiece.

It helps enormously that Guy Masterson's easygoing production is so well cast. Shaw, a dead ringer for his father equipped with an equally powerful, resonant vocal instrument, delivers an amiable monster, his underlying anger and melancholy barely contained by a patina of roguish charm. Whether railing about his finances (he is a tax exile with a brood of nine), offering a gorgeous reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, or clinically dissecting his alcoholism, he provides these flimsy proceedings with solid emotional ballast. Alex Brightman nails Dreyfuss' hundred-and-one tics -- "Mind your mannerisms," Shaw warns him, quite reasonably -- and his vaulting ambition, tempered by sweaty anxiety. (One wonders what Dreyfuss, the sole survivor of Jaws' trio of stars, makes of this project.) Pitching low and outside to excellent effect is Colin Donnell as Scheider, the genial peacemaker; he also pulls off one of the play's most difficult sequences, silently depicting his red-hot fury when a sunbathing session is disturbed by a call to the set.

Still, watching these three shoot the breeze may leave you hungry for a little action, especially when the dialogue is so weighed down with dramatic irony jokes. Commenting on Nixon, Scheider proclaims, "There will never be a more immoral president than Tricky Dicky." (You can imagine how the audience greets that one.) Later, Scheider insists, "One thing's for certain -- if there is a sequel, I will not be in it." (I commend the projection designer for not rolling out the poster for Jaws 2 at that point.) But it's Shaw who takes the prize by asserting that Jaws is "destined for the dustbin of history -- like the other big beasts of this decade: The Towering Inferno, The Exorcist, Love Story, Airport. Do you think anyone's going to remember any of those?" Good thing you weren't a producer, Bob.

Anyway, Masterson's team has floated one of the more amusing production designs on Broadway just now. Duncan Henderson's set places a cutaway version of Quint's boat against a curved ocean vista delivered by video designer Nina Dunn for PixelLux. Jon Clark's lighting artfully suggests various times of day and weather conditions and Adam Cork's sound design mixes his own compositions with bits of John Williams' score, deploying a variety of effects to indicate moviemaking activities happening outside our line of view.

As a summertime entertainment for film fans, The Shark is Broken has its moments, but it may be time to stop raiding Spielberg's filmography for theatrical attractions. (On the other hand, I can imagine The Shark is Broke kicking off an entirely new genre of plays that gives us the inside dope on notorious, budget-busting productions; I nominate Liz Taylor's Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, and anything directed by Warren Beatty.) Still, a little more heft would be welcome; in this case, a blockbuster film has given birth to a featurette for the stage. --David Barbour

(15 August 2023)

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