|THE SHARK IS BROKEN|
As famously said in the classic film “Casablanca” – and now being repeated eight times a week at the Golden Theatre towards the end of the hilarious new play “The Shark is Broken” -- the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But when the problems belong to three frustrated actors, Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, who are stranded for weeks on a boat during the troubled filming of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws,” they do amount to 95 minutes of almost non-stop laughter.
Further, with the savvy direction of Guy Masterson guiding Ian Shaw (as his late father), Colin Donnell (as Scheider) and Alex Brightman (as Dreyfuss) to perfect performances and mining the clever script (by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon) for some philosophical pondering, the work – much like “Jaws” -- acquires just the right amount of depth to feel more than just lightweight summer fare.
The plot is taken largely from real events. Driven to drink, distraction and despair by the multiple delays in shooting due to failure of the mechanical shark(s) employed by the film – not so lovingly nicknamed Bruce (in honor of Spielberg’s lawyer) – the actors’ contrasting real-life temperaments (similar to their onscreen characters) come quickly to the forefront. It’s almost amazing no one jumped off the boat (here depicted in hollowed-out form by set designer Duncan Henderson) and drowned themselves.
Robert Shaw’s constant belittlement and terrorization of Dreyfuss, a mass of almost stereotypical neuroses and insecurities – physically embodied by Brightman in an award-worthy turn – is both very funny and slightly terrifying. Still, there’s a definite father-son dynamic at play here to which many men can relate, with Dreyfuss desperately wanting the approval of the veteran actor more than anyone else’s. (It should be noted that Spielberg, heard here only as an offstage voice, was only 26 and relatively unknown at the time the movie was made.)
Fortunately, Ian Shaw (who eerily resembles his dad) makes us see that Robert Shaw is fighting his own demons, including extreme alcohol abuse, the inability to master a pivotal speech late in the film, and even his concerns about all of his salary going to taxes (Shaw ended up being in the US much longer than his visa allowed, which had major financial consequences. In reality, he fled to Canada numerous times during filming to avoid these complications.)
Just as important, Shaw also frequently voices his concern that the film will be a flop. We realize he’s basically doing the film for the money, and not because he believes it has artistic merit, such as his notable work with the playwright Harold Pinter or his own play, “The Man in the Glass Booth.” Meanwhile, Dreyfuss is unabashedly seeking fame (as well as fortune), while Scheider just appears to take pleasure in working.
In some ways, Donnell has the least flashy role; like Captain Brody in “Jaws,” he’s the voice of reason and wannabe peacemaker. Still, Donnell adeptly captures both Scheider’s ease with himself and the actor’s vocal mannerisms. But he also gets the show’s “flashiest” moment, when he strips to a tiny black Speedo to go sunbathing on the boat’s deck – and the interruption of that respite is not just a disappointment for the audience, but for Scheider as well, resulting in one of the script’s most brilliant sequences.
Admittedly, there are other moments in the script that can feel clever or cheap, (depending on your point of view) including an unspoken but obvious comparison between Richard Nixon (who was on the verge of resigning) and Donald Trump, and some facile lines about sequels, prequels and remakes that I doubt anyone ever uttered in 1974.
Plays about Hollywood and Broadway often fall flat or feel forced. Fortunately, this one did not jump the shark.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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