The River — Is a Puzzlement

Opening Night   The River — Is a Puzzlement
A behind-the-scenes look at Jez Butterworth's new play The River starring Hugh Jackman, Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly.
Hugh Jackman in <i>The River</i>
Hugh Jackman in The River Richard Termine
Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I don't really understand this one," Jez Butterworth blithely confessed to press Nov. 16 right after his new play docked at Circle in the Square. The River runs through it, transforming the space into Circle in the Rectangle. A gangplank playing-area stretches across the center of the stage, surrounded on both sides by audiences, who, as barely lit by Charles Balfour, pass plausibly for rolling waves of black water.

The setting seems to be a fishing lodge deep in a very unspecified woods, and those "children of the night" — unsettling and uncitified animal sounds — are omnipresent, giving you something to think about when the actors slide into idle. (Thank you, Ian Dickinson, for the artful audio ambience; no sooner did the Tony Awards committee dump the Sound Design from its roster than you show up with a counterargument.)

Butterworth's previous Broadway beachhead, Jerusalem, another Royal Court transfer that settled into the Music Box, was also a wooded area — this one on the outskirts of Flintock, Wiltshire, England, where trailer-trash had pitched their tents and Winnebagoes — a modest roost ruled by an unruly, Tony-winning Mark Rylance.

"When we did Jerusalem," Butterworth recalled, "at the end of that, it felt like everything was dealt with in the room. This new play feels like you're going to have to take it home with you, and you're just going to have to deal with it on your own. "I sorta aspire to haunt in that kind of way where someone will come along, see this, maybe read about it and think about it in a way they can't ever square away."

The River is the only play Butterworth has written since Jerusalem four years ago, and he has no other on the horizon. This is not writer's block. This is Butterworth: "I only write plays when they have to happen. I can't choose to write one."

Wearing his signature hat (which Rylance was fast to emulate), the playwright likes the Broadway upgrade. Previously, he was presented Off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theatre Company, who did quite well with his Mojo, The Night Heron and Parlour Song. His sixth play, The Winterling from 2006, has yet to swim to these shores.

The casual observer or the uninitiated might think the cabin is rocking with a ménage a trois — but no such luck. Butterworth loves to fool around with time zones.

The favorite game going on with the press waiting to do their interviews was creating their own storyline to what happened on stage. You have centerstage The Man (well cast in tight jeans and Serious Acting Mode with Hugh Jackman), around whom swarm like dog-fighting planes, two women. The Playbill identifies Cush Jumbo as The Woman, but you know Hugh; she could be The Woman of The Moment. The Other Woman, Laura Donnelly, is identified as such, but she could just as easily be All The Other Women of The Moment. At any rate, there is a major emotional fallout about gold earrings and a scarlet dress that one of the above has left behind. Oy!

This is The New Hugh, without a song (or, some would argue, a character), but he acts his lines with shading and feeling. "There's far too few new plays being done on Broadway these days, and to be in something like Jez's new play is a thrill," he insisted. "It's a play about authenticity and being alive — truly alive — as an actor. What else do we want in life? What does anyone else want? To have a vehicle that's this beautifully written — with such wisdom and such heart — is really wonderful."

The playing area pleased him as well. "I've actually never done that kind of configuration before. There's an intimacy to it. There's something very egalitarian. Sometimes in the theatre, you know some people sitting way back there, and you feel it's a different experience for them, but I know in this space — whether it's the front row or the back row — everyone feels the same way. We all feel we're in this together." Lead producer Sonia Friedman curtseyed accordingly for finding the right spot. "We looked at a lot of theaters on Broadway — and the moment we walked in here, we knew this was the right space," she said. "Then, we re-configured it so that the seats were right on top of the stage. We even put in extra seats. It's very intimate."

Ian Rickson, who directed the original London production, seconded that motion: "I think it's a gentle, dark, soulful experience. How can you create a dynamic with an audience — with 700 people — that preserves that intimacy? There's something lovely about the busiest, most distractive, dynamic city in the world as a home for a play about presence and being there. Can you actually make contact? I love that idea.

Cush Jumbo
Cush Jumbo Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I want the audience to have gone through something with this play. The River is really about reflection — where do they look at themselves, where do they think about their own losses and loves, and how challenging it is to be truly present?"

Before she became The Woman, Jumbo was Mark Antony to Harriet Walter's Brutus and Frances Barber's Julius Caesar in Phyllida Lloyd's Donmar Warehouse all-female production that played to raves St. Ann's Warehouse last October.

"I feel so privileged that I was able to come with Julius Caesar and do that play in Brooklyn," said the actress. "It has been such a different experience in doing this play on Broadway. I was working with a lot of girls then, and now I'm working with a tiny cast. It's been utterly different, living in Brooklyn and living here."

Living here seems to be better. "People keep asking me, 'What is it like to have your Broadway debut?' "What is it like? What is it like?' Honestly, it feels like completely the right thing. Our director has made the experience so small and intimate and fun. We're like a family living away from home. The whole thing has been completely enjoyable and not stressful or nerve-racking or pressurized. It's just been fabulous."

As for her character's back-story (or even her front-story), "I didn't see the play in London at the Royal Court, which I think was good in the end. But I automatically thought she was a woman who had a sense of humor — very witty, very intelligent, but actually was a quite sensitive and vulnerable person — and perhaps did something back in London, maybe something where she was helping other people to complete things all the time and get things done but never for herself and was never really making enough time for herself and desperately wanted this real love for herself from somebody. And she found this guy who seems also to have that. "So she comes to this cabin with an open mind to come fishing, and she was kinda on a quest, on the lookout, searching for complete truth in her life, which she thinks is eroding, really. It's a play that can go in so many directions at any point."

Rest assured, The Other Woman has her side as well, and Donnelly treats it all as a multiple choice. "It's really up to me to decide," the actress contended. "It's not written into the play as such, so I just made my own decisions about things like what I think that she did for a living, where she has come from and all the things that have formed that she feels is right at this point in her life when we first meet her."

Laura Donnelly
Laura Donnelly Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The only original cast member, Donnelly, did her London fencing with Dominic West of "The Affair." So contrast, discuss. "They brought very different things. One of the wonderful things about Dominic is that he doesn't take himself seriously at all so he brings a real humor to everything he does. He's a lovely man to work with, a kind person. Hugh brings a sensitivity and a depth to it that I hadn't seen before. And he brings something new every single night so he keeps me on my toes, absolutely!"

The opening-night guest list seemed like it might have been drawn up by Jackman himself: Donna Karan and Russell James, Vogue's Anna Wintour, soccer's Gary Winston Lineker, Carol Kane (who's of "Gotham" and Tina Fey's new series), Ellen Burstyn (fresh from doing The Cherry Orchard at Actors' Studio "just for fun"), Mariska Hargitay and Peter Hermann, director Michael Longhurst and playwright Nick Payne (who are transplanting their hit London Constellations into MTC's Friedman Theatre Jan. 18), Ivanka Trump, director-choreographer Rob Ashford, Jerry Seinfeld and wife, director Matthew Warchus, Harvey Keitel and clan, Luke Evans, Zoe Wanamaker, Sally Field and Rob Howell.

Broadway's Tony-winning costumer Ann Roth, who missed the excellent "CBS Sunday Morning" segment that was done on her earlier in the day, lingered around with the press after the show so she could give her Hugh a huge hug. Catherine Martin went out of her way to meet Roth, a longtime idol. Martin has won four Oscars for designing costumes and sets for husband Baz Luhrman's films. The Luhrmans will be back in the spring to shoot a TV series that is set in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Roth found it was worth the wait. Hugh hugged her like a favorite grandmother!

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