Monday, December 15, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: The River starring Hugh Jackman

Plot Waters Too Murky to Figure Out What Hugh Jackman is Doing By the River
By Lauren Yarger
Let me start out by saying that I although I was somewhat alone in the critics circles a couple of seasons ago, I really liked Jez Butterworth’s puzzling, deep and humorous play Jerusalem (also directed by Ian Dickson).

Critics weren’t sure what the heck it was about, but enjoyed the fabulous performance of Mark Rylance. I appreciated the mythical saga of a man’s journey through pain and felt, yes, somewhat superior to my colleagues who didn’t get it. No longer.

After seeing The River, Butterworth’s newest play, getting a limited run at Circle in the Square Theater with Box-Office-Golden Hugh Jackman as its star, I have to admit I’m in the “didn’t-get-it” category for this one. A colleague texted me after seeing it: “What the heck was that about?” “No idea,” I replied.

Jackman plays a man (listed in the Playbill only as “The Man,” so you know you’re in trouble….) who likes fishing a lot at a “cabin on the cliffs, above the river” – the nonspecifics continue. We know he likes fishing because he talks about it a lot to two women (Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly), identified as The Woman and The Other Woman who appear at the cabin separate from each other, but who tend to have the same conversation with The Man….

Is he really just trying to get them to do a little night fishing or is there more sinister bait at the end of his hook? Who are they and why are they at the cabin, and whose drawing with the face missing is hidden under the bed and why is her dress still in the cabin? No clue.

“I promised myself I would only bring one woman here,” Jackman’s character tells one of the women. “The woman I wanted to spend my life with. The woman I wanted to be with forever. She would come here, and it would be sacred. It would be something I had only shared with her and her alone.”

OK, so is the woman with her face scratched out that “sacred” choice and none of these others can fill her shoes? Is this a line which he uses to gain the confidence of a long stream of woman he captures in his net? Is one of them the ideal woman before her face is scratched out of the photo? Do they all only exist in his imagination? Did he kill one or more of them and now he’s is reeling in his next catch? Did his uncle do the killing? Is this some sort of purgatory? 

No clue, but it certainly was 80 minutes of confusion for my brain, despite Jackman’s solid performance and fish-gutting skills. The able design team is Scenic Design by Ultz, Costume Design by EsosaLighting Design by Charles Balfour; Sound Design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, music by Stephen Warbeck.

In an attempt to offer you some insight to the play and its meaning, I offer you the description from the show’s page:

“On a moonless evening, a man brings his new girlfriend to a remote cabin for a night of trout-fishing. But before the night is over, it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems… and as memory collides with desire, the truth becomes the most elusive catch of all.”

In addition, here the few notes I scribbled on my reporter’s pad: 
  • What the heck did that mean?” (The Woman had just read a poem by Yeats.)
  • · “Isn’t that a different woman?”
  • · “He just said he loved her while gutting a fish.”
  • · “Who the heck is buried out at the abandoned house?”
  • · “Isn’t that a different woman again?”
  • · “Isn’t that the same water spigot they used for The Miracle Worker and Godspell at this theater?
  • · “Isn’t that a different woman again?”
OK, now you write the review…. Press agents asked us not to reveal the ending. No problem since I didn’t get that either.

The best part of the night came after the curtain when Jackman enticed members of the audience to bid on the T-shirt he was wearing to raise funds for Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDs. The quite personable actor ended up with two parties paying $7,000 each for the privilege of having their pictures taken with him backstage. He also brought in the most money – almost $500,000 – of all the Broadway, Off-Broadway and touring shows competing in this year’s Gypsy competition for the cause.

That’s the kind of star power that is keeping The River packing the house with premium tickets selling as high as $275 each. It sure isn’t the plot.

The River runs (nice pun) through Feb. 8 at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., NYC. Perfromances: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets $35-$175;

Christians might also like to know:
-- The show posts a MATURE warning
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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