It's a sight that will make anyone swoon: Hugh Jackman in a burgundy T-shirt, biceps bulging, cooking dinner. A freshly caught sea trout is on the menu tonight, prepared exclusively by Chef Jackman in Jez Butterworth's The River, now at the Circle in the Square Theatre after a run in 2012 at London's Royal Court. For a good five minutes, Jackman is alone onstage, slicing the freshly caught fish and chopping vegetables as classical music plays on a staticky wireless. The idea of sharing a meal with the charming Tony winner (one that he himself makes) is one of many moments aimed to tease throughout this 85-minute drama, directed with a keen eye for mood by Ian Rickson.
The setting is an old cabin in the woods on a moonless night, where an unnamed man (Jackman) has brought his latest (and similarly unnamed) girlfriend (Cush Jumbo) for a weekend of togetherness and fishing. Not too far away is a relatively private body of water, from which trout have been known to jump. Something strange happens: The girlfriend, simply called The Woman, goes missing in the darkness. As the man frantically calls the police to arrange a search party, he hears her voice outside. She's back, he realizes, and swiftly hangs up. Except that it's not her, right?
Nearly everything that follows the opening scene can be considered somewhat of a spoiler, and giving too much away would annihilate everything Butterworth and Rickson are setting out to do. That is, if you can actually figure out what they're trying to do. The River exists in a murky arena between reality and memory, where nothing is as it seems. From our perspective, the woman who enters the cabin in burly fishing gear is not the one we've previously met, but someone completely different, both in looks and behavior (and actress: Laura Donnelly). The Man sees no change; he's just glad she's back. That she arrives with a three-pound trout she caught sends his head spinning.
Butterworth and Rickson construct the play by withholding key information until it is vitally necessary. Through a taut staging that keeps the suspense level steadily rising, Rickson forces us to play detective as we begin to parse out who these people are through Butterworth's mostly Spartan dialogue. (The textual style shifts back and forth from this to ornate, symbolic monologues that don't always fit.) But easy answers aren't provided. This is more of a Pinter-esque thriller where each viewer's interpreted meaning is likely to be different, rather than a Hitchcock film where the motives are deliberately revealed in the wrap-up. It's not a hard play to follow; however, it's definitely one that will leave many audience members scratching their heads, for a variety of reasons.
One is Jackman's casting. In the first few scenes, he's the perfect fit for our nameless protagonist, oozing with charisma and masculinity, a person who even manages to make the tediousness of fishing seem sexually attractive. No one in their right mind would turn down a private visit to his haven in the countryside (in fact, audience members have the opportunity to sit up close in special almost-on-stage seating). As his dubious intentions are gradually exposed, Jackman doesn't really modify his tone; he's still the same affable guy we first meet, even when our opinion of him is supposed to change completely. It's detrimental to the play's hunt for answers, for sure, but Jackman's sympathetic performance lends a warm relatability to this man's plight. Nevertheless, it's hard not to wonder if it should be.
As the women in his life, the gorgeous U.K.-based actresses Jumbo and Donnelly make splendid Broadway debuts. Through their individual demeanors, they create diametrically opposed characters with personalities far more distinctive than they could have been on the page. Jumbo is expressive and soulful. Donnelly, the only performer from the London production to come to New York, is free-spirited. Production designer Ultz carefully constructs the trio's costumes to suit their personalities; it's extremely believable that the tall, striking Jumbo would feel more at home in a cream-colored sleeveless blouse and blue jeans, while the smaller Donnelly, with her jet-black hair and milky skin, is a knockout stunner in a scarlet dress that takes on a role of its own.
If there were awards for "Best Milieu," The River would win, hands down. The Circle in the Square has never seemed as intimate as it does here, with an exquisitely detailed lodge set (also by Ultz), complete with roof, cobwebs, creaky floors, and moody, lifelike lighting by Charles Balfour. Sound designer Ian Dickinson keeps the squealing of birds and other animals just slightly in earshot, while Stephen Warbeck's musical compositions manage to clue us in on important details without being obtrusive. Even with a contradictory performance at its center, this strangely uneasy world and its denizens will be hard to forget.