Talk about "Die Hard"! Bruce Willis made a belated, theatrically death-defying Broadway debut Nov. 15 at the Broadhurst Theatre, mostly flat on his back or in a sitting position, playing virtually all of his scenes in Misery with the mercurial Laurie Metcalf, who is in a constantly surprising, if not downright dazzling psychotic spin.
He is Paul Sheldon, a bestselling novelist who has spent 20 years and nine books fabricating the romantic pursuits of a Victorian lass named Misery Chastain and now wants to be free of that burden of success so he can re-prove himself as a real writer. She is Annie Wilkes, a deranged agrarian type who'll have none of that re-direction because she is, as she proclaims in the first and last lines of this play (and countless times in between) his "Number One fan." She has even named her pet pig after Misery and can't abide the fact that he has killed the character off so he could pursue fresher literary fields. No, that just won't do. He will have to bring Misery back to life just as she brought him back to life. Better he should have been left to die in the snow after his car crash than endure her "rescue" and artistic rehabilitation.
Not since Carrie — as the saying goes — has Stephen King had a story on Broadway. This second contribution was inspired by his fans' negative reaction to the lack of horror in "The Eyes of the Dragon." Feeling himself a prisoner of the genre, King turned this personal creative crisis into a horror show for the masses, placing the artist at the mercy and whim of his audience, thus returning to form with a vengeance in "Misery." Rob Reiner, who was among the evening's first-nighters, helmed the marginally less violent 1990 film in which an all-stops-out, Oscar-winning Kathy Bates administered some high-strung nasty-nursing to poor, defenseless James Caan. Reiner's history in sitcoms, no doubt, helped him bring out the undercurrents of comedy in this hell.
There are a couple of rude jolts to the system in this play, but, when placed before a live audience, it's the yucks that overwhelm the shocks. William Goldman has retyped and tightened his own screen adaptation, and David Korins' rustic set maintains a certain fluid, filmic flow, revolving from room to room when necessary.
Which is not to say he hasn't given proper due to the property's raison d'etre: "If you don't break his ankles on stage in front of everyone, they're going to be furious. That was all I knew. That was what they were coming to see." So, to that end, he supplied a little special-effects flourish. "Plus, we train the audience to believe we're doing it." After the show, first-nighters hopped the E train to the 16th Street party-site, Tao, which comfortably accommodated the crowd and the usual press commotion.
Once Goldman parked himself at a table among the revelers, he didn't budge and never made it to the press room. The man who wrote the definitive book on Main Stem machinations — "The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway," a thorough analysis of the 1967-68 season — was finding himself at last in that mix as a solo playwright, an octogenarian Broadway debutante. His previous forays into theatre — Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole in 1961 and A Family Affair in 1962 — were made with his brother, James, who stayed around with The Lion in Winter and Follies. The year after James won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Lion, William won the Oscar for his original "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and stuck to screenplays ("Harper" and the also-Oscared "All the President's Men"), novels and sometimes a combination of both ("Marathon Man," "The Princess Bride," "Magic"). Misery is his first adaptation for the stage, and he pronounced himself quite pleased with the way the evening had gone.
He has no immediate plans for a Broadway return, but he hasn't ruled out that musical version of "The Princess Bride," which stopped in its tracks when composer Adam Guettel bolted. "That's possible," Goldman allowed, "but I'm not pushing it."
Fragmenting women are a specialty with Metcalf (she was Tony-nominated as one in The Other Place her last time on Broadway), so she has herself a feast with Annie Wilkes. "I went nowhere near the movie," she said, although she didn't have to say it. Her take is radically different from Bates' and, possibly, more psychologically rooted. "I did try to honor the real problems that I believe she is suffering from."
Her favorite part of the role — no fool, she — is "the laughs. That response doesn't surprise me, but I like knowing that they're coming, and I like getting them because I think when you're going to see this play, you're not expecting it to be so funny."
Willis concurred: "It's just as funny as it is scary. There are moments when you don't know what's going to happen next. I'm very surprised at the laughs that it gets. They weren't written into the script, but, somehow, Laurie gets 'em all the time. I have to duck my head and not smile at what she's doing because she really cracks me up."
At one point, the action star interrupted his run of TV interviews to go over and hug his director's father, Stephen Frears, a British film director of note ("Philomena," "High Fidelity," "The Grifters" and Helen Mirren's Oscar vehicle, "The Queen").
"I'm a proud father," Papa beamed from the sidelines. "I thought Will did brilliantly tonight. Don't look at me, though. I never encouraged him. He just wanted to direct."
Frears pere recently wrapped a film with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant called "Florence Foster Jenkins" after the heiress with the abiding rep of being the worst singer ever to sing at Carnegie Hall. Judy Kaye got a Tony nomination as her in 2005 in Stephen Temperley's Souvenir. This isn't that play. It will be released in August.
Almost all of Misery is a two-hander, but there are periodic interruptions from a third party — a snoopy sheriff who slowly and surely tracks the missing writer to the Wilkes farmhouse. Onstage, the character is played by Leon Addison Brown; on screen, he was played by Richard Farnsworth, and Goldman wrote him a snippy helpmate — a wife/deputy dispatched drily by the wonderful Frances Sternhagen. After one of her withering remarks, Farnsworth responds with the best line in the picture: "You see, it's just that kind of sarcasm that's given our marriage real spice."