Metcalf's Nurse Calls the Shots in Fun, Forgettable ‘Misery'—Debut for Bruce Willis

I give the talent behind “Misery” tons of credit. They’ve taken a thrilling novel and a terrifying film, and given it new life as … let’s call it “Misery’s Hit Parade.”

There are no lulls in famed screenwriter William Goldman’s 90-minute stage adaptation of the Stephen King story, which Goldman himself translated into the 1990 film starring Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, a murderous nurse.

Exposition that took a dozen pages in paperback and at least several minutes on screen, plays out at the Broadhurst Theatre—where “Misery” has just opened—faster than snow piling up in a Colorado blizzard.

As our newest “Misery” begins, writer Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis, in his Broadway debut) is already convalescing in the mountain cabin of nurse Annie (Laurie Metcalf). The car accident that got him there? Goldman ("All the President's Men," etc.) and director Will Frears are wise enough to know we know it happened.

Watching Broadway’s “Misery” is like playing a 33 LP set to 45. It’s Stephen King by way of the Chipmunks, and with as much gravitas. (The set, which I loved, is a turntable, by David Korins, of “Hamilton”—it spins to reveal the bedroom where Annie imprisons Paul, and the kitchen, where Paul and Annie have a dinner that is a high point of this staging.)

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss a lot. Better, re-watch the movie, about a romance novelist and his “number one fan,” before you go. The thrilling cinematic climax, a protracted battle to the death, here is reduced to one good whack Paul gives Annie with his used typewriter, the one missing an “N” key, and a few seconds of neck-throttling. Die-HARD? Die-easy is more like it.

Metcalf, the marvelous star of TV and stage (she’s a recent Tony nominee for “The Other Place”), makes Annie Wilkes her own, an accomplishment, given how closely we associate the role with Oscar-winner Bates.

In other “Misery” incarnations, Annie’s got backstory, as a former maternity nurse. Goldman’s efficient script allows for no such luxury here. It’s some time before we’re even sure Annie is loony … she might just be a well-meaning gal who happened to pull her favorite writer from a car wreck.

There’s pressure on Metcalf to keep this play from going camp, and she pulls it off without hamming things up—no offense intended to her pig, whom she admits to naming for the main character in Paul’s fictions. My favorite bit? When she dons the hat of poor Sheriff Buster (Leon Addison Brown), after blowing him to smithereens.

Willis, in his Broadway debut, is persuasive and coy. It’s a physical performance. His best scene comes at that dinner with Annie, when he’s trying to both charm and poison her as they celebrate his bringing Misery (the character) back to life.

Metcalf and Willis seem to be having oodles of fun. As Annie sits in Paul’s wheelchair, explaining her imminent plans for a murder-suicide, she rolls the chair back and forth, like a toddler testing out a new tricycle. When she asks Paul for “a smile” toward the play’s climax, he gives her the finger: “Here’s one.” Such a dirty birdie!

In case you're wondering: The production pulls off an appropriately cringe-worthy recreation of the famous hobbling scene.

We may question whether “Misery” demanded a stage adaptation, but there are two good reasons to see it: Metcalf and Willis. The actors manage to elevate material that is, at best, workmanlike. “Misery” is entertaining and forgettable.

“Misery,” through Feb. 14, 2016 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. Tickets: $69-$165. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn 

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