NEW YORK (AP) — Those who find they haven't really a taste for Jez Butterworth's latest, enigmatic play will find a diversion to keep them happy — a cooking demonstration by Hugh Jackman.
The talented star of the wistful and haunted "The River" wordlessly guts a real trout about halfway through the play, chops a fennel bulb — displaying some excellent "Top Chef" knife skills — then slips lemon slices into the skin and seasons the dish before popping it into the oven.
It's a show-stopping moment in more ways than one. "The River," which opened Sunday at the Circle in the Square Theatre, is slow to build its magic and the trout preparation brings it to a halt. The decision to let this sequence drag on so excruciatingly actually guts the work itself.
Butterworth's 90-minute play, which made its debut in London in 2012, has rightly been compared to a silvery, shimmering fish, twisting and turning just out of reach. It's about love and repetition and the past returning to haunt the present. Compared with the playwright's last play "Jerusalem," the new one is smaller, though no less ambitious.
Jackman plays a trout fisherman in a remote cabin who is visited by some of the loves of his life. The script warps time and memory cleverly and is directed by Ian Rickson with a flair for mirroring images, quick dialogue and a respect for stillness, marred only by that fishy stuff.
Muscles rippling in an otherworldly manner, Jackman is ably supported by two strong actresses — Laura Donnelly, who is perfectly languid, sensuous and mysterious, and Cush Jumbo, who nails the defensive insecurity and flirtatiousness of a new, anxious lover. They both add different, complex flavors to the dish.
Jackman himself is earnest and slightly flabbergasted as his character's narrative and memory gradually crack, but lacks any real slipperiness, making him more a victim of circumstance than a man complicit in his past tales. The actor's natural sweetness shines through when what we really want to see is the rogue. The role may get more mileage from a wolf, not a Wolverine.
Butterworth's voice is always welcome and he returns with a pretty, less bombastic script than "Jerusalem," though one with gorgeous turns of phrase. (A fish is "like a bar of precious metal. Like God's tongue.") He has a knack for dialogue between two people testing each other and his recurring love of fearsome nature — "There are monsters out there. Huge monsters," the fisherman warns about the fish — is darkly romantic.
The set designer Ultz — with candle and lantern lighting by Charles Balfour — has ably transformed the stage into a weather-beaten cabin, complete with spider webs and creaky wooden boards. The sound of a rushing river and birdsong fill the theater, which is often as hushed as a funeral parlor.
That's appropriate because "The River" is a whisper of a play, a lovely little look at the one that got away. Pity we spend so much time watching the gutting of the one that didn't.
Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits