For a whale of a Broadway talent like Hugh Jackman, The River is a minnow of a show. Jez Butterworth’s 85-minute drama is a quiet, elliptical chamber piece, delicate as a sea shell, and it’s no wonder that the producers have selected one of the Main Stem’s smallest theaters — the 696-seat Circle in the Square — despite the Tony-winning star’s box office muscle. As it is, the venue is almost too large for this slender, flawed drama about fly-fishing and the art of seduction. (Even in the eighth row, it was hard to make out key props used by the three-person cast.)
The chief seducer, of course, is Jackman’s unidentified man, who whisks his new girlfriend (the striking Cush Jumbo, seen last fall as Marc Antony in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar) to a remote English riverside cabin that’s been in his family for years. She presents herself as a reluctant outdoorswoman, more interested in sunsets and her copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but he wears her down with the poetry of Ted Hughes and his own personal rhapsodies to the angler’s mission.
In the next scene, the couple is back in the cabin after getting separated in the dark — only the woman is now played by the flirtatious Laura Donnelly and the particulars of their courtship seem merely similar but not identical. The two women continue to swap scenes until the curtain call — sharing a freshly cooked trout dinner and sipping wine and sitting for a portrait — like interchangeable pieces of Butterworth’s mysterious puzzle of a story.
Are these women memories, fantasies, projections, or representations of serial romances? Butterworth provides no answers, though there is a clear overlap between his hero’s elegies to fly-fishing and the game of seduction — the trickery of crafting lures, the lightning-bolt rush of hooking a fish, the sense of loss when the prize is finally won — and consumed.
As you might imagine, Jackman is an ideal romantic avatar, one with arguably more charisma than the role demands. It’s easy to imagine why a woman might don knee-high wellies and wade into frigid waters to spend some time with this charmer, a man’s man who not only guts a trout on stage but chops fennel and carrots and onions for a delicious home-cooked dinner. Donnelly and Jumbo prove to be worthy foils, feisty and intelligent, but each is saddled with a late speech that recounts offstage action that would have been more convincing if dramatized.
Indeed, The River is a more modest, frankly less accomplished work than Butterworth’s last Broadway outing, the award-winning three-act epic Jerusalem. And audiences expecting a Wolverine-size entertainment are likely to be a little disappointed. This ain’t The Boy From Oz meets A River Runs Through It (though you will learn quite a bit about the origins of fly-fishing). Still, Jackman might be able to reel you in for this intellectual little ghost story, with a payoff that’s aptly understated. Grade: B