You know those guys? The ones who point out that if you take the twist ending of “The Sixth Sense” seriously, then the entire film that went before makes no sense (particularly the behavior of the mother)? The ones who say they were kind of annoyed rather than thrilled by “The Usual Suspects” because Verbal’s “con” makes no sense (starting with the fact that his “short con” is never convincing, and proceeding to the fact that at the end of the film the cops have his picture). These stories don’t have integrity, these guys will say; they are a con of the audience, who are tricked into believing they are involved in a story only to discover that the author views “story” as just a higher form of audience manipulation.
I’m one of those guys.
I understand the opposing perspective. These stories are about revealing that story is a form of manipulation; about exposing the mendacity inherent in story construction because that process is a process of seduction, and seduction is, inherently, about lies, about deception.
But see, I’m just not that cynical. I think there’s nothing so seductive as truth, because there’s nothing so seductive as vulnerability. That vulnerability may be withdrawn – and hearts may be broken in consequence. But the fellows who set out to be stone-cold seducers, who think they have “game” – even a very sophisticated version of it – probably come off as creeps more than not.
Which brings me to Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The River, now on Broadway at Circle in the Square, starring Hugh Jackman as “The Man” (yes, “The Man”) and Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as, respectively, “The Woman” and “The Other Woman.”
I can’t actually talk any further about this play without spoiling it utterly – that’s the problem with writing about these bits of twisty business. But the thing is: I really do believe that if the play or movie or novel doesn’t work once you know the twist, then it’s an inferior work. “Fight Club,” for example, is an exception to my rule of not liking these kinds of twists, because the movie is even better on second viewing. But even so, there’s still some value to not knowing the first time, so you can have that experience of revelation. So if you plan to see The River, and don’t want the experience spoiled, you might want to stop reading this write-up now.
The play is set entirely in a fishing cabin where The Man has brought The Woman for a special weekend. This is a moonless night in August, after a rain, and the sea trout are running. There will never be a better night (so he says) for landing these peripatetic princes in the midst of their migration from river to sea and back. And she has been chosen especially to share this experience with him.
Except, she hasn’t. He’s done this before, with the Other Woman, who makes her appearance about fifteen minutes into the play, taking over for The Woman whom we met initially.
There’s no indication that we’ve moved backward or forward in time, so at first I wondered whether I was in a version of “That Obscure Object of Desire,” if these were supposed to represent one women, two women, all women – Woman with a capital “Wuh.” Certainly the lack of names encouraged such an interpretation. But they seemed like specific people with distinct personalities and histories – personalities that get teased out by Jackman’s Man, who is both a lyrical talker and a pretty darn good listener. He seems genuinely fascinated and delighted by their stories, and genuinely eager to tell them about – well, mostly about fish. Plus he can cook. (He prepares one of the trout on stage, gutting it and baking it with lemon on a bed of fennel and onion. His knife skills are more fluid than mine, I can tell you that much.) He is, in other words, a hell of a catch. Any woman would see that.
But (here’s the big spoiler) he’s not about to be caught. He’s the one fishing. He’s lured them here, made it seem that he really loved them, made them feel like they might love him. And all in order to . . .
Well, that’s the question we’re left with at the end. It’s all too much effort just for sex, and besides, he can only play this particular trick on a moonless night in August – i.e., once a year. Maybe that’s enough for a sea trout – but for Hugh Jackman? His parting words to The Woman throw her own words back at her – “I’m not sure I know what love is” – saying these are the only true words either of them have spoken the whole weekend. But if that’s true, then what exactly is he after?
Laura Donnelly’s Other Woman seems to think he’s looking for some kind of feminine perfection, or for an image of woman that he had and lost. Cush Jumbo seems more on her guard from start to finish, more aware of and more wary of both the games he might be playing and whatever the truth might turn out to be. She never really gives herself to him – and then he lets her go with that parting shot. So: did he catch her? What exactly is the game?
I don’t really know – which, personally, I found quite irritating. Even Jackman’s entirely convincing and beautifully restrained performance can’t cross that final rubicon, because there’s nothing on the other side, nothing for him to play. When he is wooing, he manages to be seductive while still conveying that nothing has really been revealed. When he is caught out on the myth of eternal recurrence that he’s enacting, he is suitably ashamed. But when he fires his parting shot, I honestly don’t know what it means – emotionally. He’s cold. But what is the source of the chill?
What with the no-names policy and the over-extended fishing metaphor, I sense that Butterworth is trying to say something essential about Man and Woman and their perennial dance in the moonless night. But I wound up feeling he was saying more about himself as a playwright, and his relationship with the audience.
And I don’t fancy myself a fish to be hooked.
Nonetheless – The River runs through February 8th at New York’s Circle in the Square theater.