We all have our little prejudices. Here’s just one of mine: I am ill-disposed toward plays whose characters don’t have proper names but who are simply given labels like “The Boy,” “The Girl,” or, as in the case of The River, a shallow work by Jez Butterworth, “The Man” and “The Woman.” But because the man is being played by Hugh Jackman, that’s plenty name enough for the audiences who’ll be flocking to Circle in the Square to see the superstar boy from Oz, aka Wolverine, in the flesh. They’ll have the chance to hear him wax poetic about trout, watch him expertly clean and gut and cook a fish, and exude an air of menace. Or stoicism. Or puzzlement about what the hell this play is about.
The man is visiting a secluded cabin in the woods with his new girlfriend, The Woman (the charming Cush Jumbo). The plan is to go fly-fishing on a particular moonlit night when the trout that so obsess him are making their way to the sea. The Woman, meanwhile, wants The Man to watch the extraordinary sunset with him. He’s so busy getting ready for the angling expedition that he refuses to share the moment. Instead, he assures her that all sunsets are alike and backs up his assertion in precise, hilarious detail: “August. Low Clouds. Blood red as far as the headland turning to lilac-blue wisps above the bluffs…..” She says she would rather stay back at the cabin and curl up with “To the Lighthouse.” He’d like her to read aloud “After Moonless Midnight,” but she reacts with displeasure when she learns the poem’s author is Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s faithless husband. Relationships are difficult, seems to be the message, intimacy even more so.
In the next scene, Jackman’s character is on his cell phone, frantically trying to make contact with the police. The woman he’s been fishing with has disappeared. He imagines the worse about her, and the audience begins to imagine the worst about him. The Man is relieved when she calls out to him, but a different woman (“The Other Woman,” Laura Donnelly) appears out of the darkness. It’s a bizarre twist that isn’t acknowledged and isn’t explained.
And so it goes. As soon as one or the other woman heads into the bedroom, the other appears on stage and picks up the conversation. Is. Jackman’s character a womanizer who brings each new girlfriend to the cabin and makes empty declarations of love and fidelity? Perhaps. After all, one woman finds earrings in the bathroom that don’t belong to her. Another unsettling discovery is of a red-dress clad woman with her face scratched out. Even more ominously, that exact same red dress is hanging in the closet. And yikes, that’s an awfully big knife that The Man uses to extract a splinter from the finger of The Woman. But it’s hard to get invested; the characters are ciphers.
With its self-consciously literary monologues and symbolism-laden bit of business, The River seems more than anything like a playwright’s exercise. Throw it back; it’s too small to keep.