Review: “The River” Finds Hugh Jackman in Troubled Waters

You can’t help being mesmerized when Hugh Jackman talks about fishing during “The River,” the new 85-minute drama by playwright Jez Butterworth.

Hooking a trout is akin to “catching a lightning bolt” or “jamming your finger into a socket.” The sensation is “like a million sunsets rolled into a ball and shot straight into your veins.”

Got shivers? When Jackman puts it that way, he makes trout-fishing sound a lot like falling in love. So we may be here, at the Circle in the Square—where the beloved song-and-dance man is working well outside his customary milieu—for a little romance.

Then again, we may not.

What you’ll hear about “The River” is that it’s hard to describe without giving away too much. This much is fair: A man has brought his new girlfriend to a remote cabin for a night of trout-fishing. It’s never specified where, but given all the fetching accents involved, my vote is for somewhere in Australia.

“The River,” Butterworth’s first new play since 2009’s award-winning “Jerusalem,” is not for theatergoers who demand resolution. There’s no traditional plot, and the narrative is non-linear. It’s as much about what we bring to it—the blanks we fill in, from the darker corners of our mind—as what’s on the page.

Butterworth’s thriller premiered in 2012 at London’s Royal Court Theatre and has made its way across the pond with one of two female stars from that staging, Laura Donnelly, intact (Dominic West, of HBO’s “The Wire,” headed the U.K. cast).

The intimate Circle in the Square is transformed into Jackman’s rustic getaway, with cobwebs dangling from the ceiling, a well-worn wooden table, and drawers of fly-fishing apparatus. Much of the real estate has been reserved for what producers coyly call “riverbank seats.” The result is less theater-in-the-round than theater in a narrow rectangle, with entrances for actors on either end.

For effect, a mournful Yeats poem, describing the mythological god Aengus’s endless search for his lover, occasionally fills the air—that, ever so subtly, is a clue to the nature of “The River.”

As The Man, Jackman reaffirms his versatility as a performer. During a heralded sequence in which the venerable awards-show host and sometime-Wolverine guts an actual trout to serve for dinner, I was never certain if he was planning a seduction or … perhaps something else?

It’s an exceptionally understated and enigmatic performance, conveying euphoria in some places—listen to Jackman describe the experience of catching his first fish, at age 7—and, perhaps, scaring the life out of you in others … in much the same way The Man was terrified the first time he felt a snared fish “buckle and shudder” as its life slipped away.

The Man has been coming to this cabin most of his life, first with an uncle who used to relate stories of his conquests, then by himself. Has he brought many other women here? Don’t expect a straight answer. What you’ll see before you are his interactions with actresses Donnelly and Cush Jumbo (below), a young Londoner who made waves last year as Mark Antony in the all-female “Julius Caesar” that enjoyed a St. Ann’s Warehouse transfer.

Both are confident and alluring performers who are wholly believable as objects of desire.

You’re likely to get lost wondering who each woman is and what role she plays in The Man’s life. Director Ian Rickson, who helmed “Jerusalem” on both sides of the Atlantic, throws in a red herring or two, particularly in the form of clothing, just to keep matters indecipherable.

“The River” could be an allegory about a man lamenting lost love, or something more sinister. If you’re like me, the possibilities won’t even hit until you’re well on your way home. Rarely in my theatergoing experience has a 650-seat venue felt as claustrophobic and threatening as it did toward the play’s conclusion.

Heraclitus once said it, and it was even seconded by Pocahontas in the eponymous Disney film: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The sentiment, the Greek philosopher argued, alludes to the idea of ever-present change in the universe—the always-moving river. Some people, of course, aren’t so comfortable with change. The Man, I think it’s safe to acknowledge, is one of them.

“The River,” through Jan. 25 at The Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St. Tickets: $35-$175. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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