There’s an excellent reason why Jez Butterworth’s “The River” proved to be a blockbuster on Broadway in 2014 and its success can be summed up in two words: Hugh Jackman. The critically panned play did not win over many friends, but the New York producers had the good sense to cast someone who might just take your mind off the ponderous talkfest that is the essence of Butterworth’s play. “The River” has now opened the 33rd season at TheaterWorks in Hartford and, unfortunately, Mr. Jackman is nowhere to be found.
Set in a rural cabin in the woods (the accents seem to suggest the location might be Australia), “The River” introduces characters simply named “The Man” (Billy Carter), “The Woman” (Andrea Goss) and “The Other Woman” (Jasmine Batchelor). Are you annoyed already? The play teases you with these basic titles and it becomes difficult to describe what there is of a plot without spoiling surprises that, when finally revealed, are less “wow!” than “huh?” Suffice it to say that The Man has brought what appears to be a new girlfriend to his cabin in order to share his love of trout fishing. An actual trout is gutted, seasoned and cooked during the course of the play and may be the single most compelling thing about “The River”.
There’s lots of “important talk” about the river as metaphor and even more about nature symbols that I’m sure are meaningful for people interested enough to explore Mr. Butterworth’s literary sources, but this 80 minute exercise in pretentious twaddle ultimately promises significantly more than it actually delivers. “The River” can be classified as a mystery, I suppose, since there is momentary interest about those two women and what they represent. Are they elements of The Man’s long lost love or the actual long lost love or just various girlfriends who remind him of his long lost love? Is this guy a serial killer? A crazed conman? A ladies’ man who hooks women with his vast knowledge of fly fishing? Alas, easy answers are not forthcoming.
Under Rob Ruggiero’s polished direction, the actors do as well as they can given the material though both women would do well to clarify their diction. This is a play where it feels significant if you miss a word of dialogue even though it probably isn’t. Several monologues during the play are emphasized with a subtle lighting change (John Lasiter) and musical underscoring (Frederick Kennedy) in order to make clear that: THIS IS IMPORTANT! PLEASE LISTEN! Brian Prather’s woodsy cabin setting is beautifully framed by a variety of bare-limbed trees that stretch above the proscenium and the interior is perfectly detailed with rough hewn furniture and braided rugs. Yes, “The River” certainly looks good and there is plenty of talent behind the scenes, but even with its brief running time and no intermission, the play often seems longer than “Hamlet”.
“The River” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through November 11. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.twhartford.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.