"Misery", the Broadway play, will close this month after approximately 100 performances. While it wasn't a blockbuster and much of the audience undoubtedly bought tickets to see Bruce Willis, the play has signified a rare feat on Broadway: a straight play adapted from film that is compelling, loyal to its source material, and theatrical. Much of that achievement is due to Will Frears' suspenseful direction and clever use of stage rotation to convey the experience of imprisoned novelist Paul Sheldon (Willis) as well as the sublime casting of Laurie Metcalf as Paul's obsessive fan Annie Wilkes. But the source material, namely a psychological thriller, is equally important.
Increasingly each year, Broadway producers look to the film industry for inspiration in developing the next crowd-pleasing adaptation: “Hairspray”, “The Producers”, and the mother of all film-to-theater transfers, “The Lion King”. The productions that turn big profits are typically musicals, so it's rare that a film is adapted as a straight play. More so, play adaptations can seem as if they're trying too hard to measure up to their films. Simply put, without a creative use of theatricality, they fall flat. Think of “A Time to Kill” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” – both popular films based on beloved novels that were produced on Broadway as straight plays and closed after just a month of performances (both in 2013, coincidentally).
The adaptation of "Misery", written by William Goldman (also the screenwriter for the 1990 film) and based on Stephen King's widely popular novel, works surprisingly well onstage and reminded me that psychological thrillers are well suited to theater. What Frears achieves is reminiscent of memorable stage thrillers like Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and Martin McDonaugh’s “The Pillowman”, specifically:
1. Getting into the mind of the villain. Bruce Willis is a bigger marquee name than Laurie Metcalf, but "Misery" is Annie's story to own, and watching the progression of her psychosis is thrilling.
2. Emphasizing set design as a crucial narrative device. Sets do for theater what camera angles do for film. In "Misery", the set shifts eerily as Paul explores the home of his captor.
3. Making the violence bloody and raw. We know that staged violence doesn't come close to the realism of violence on film, but the live element creates a visceral experience.
When it comes to the Hollywood-Broadway relationship, most films - especially the most iconic ones - don't work on a live stage. Action films are nonstarters and romantic comedies are duds without a bankable star. Besides dramas, psychological thrillers may have the most potential. The unfolding of suspenseful events and the attention to a character's demonic psychology are well-suited to the stage: think "Macbeth", "Richard III", and "Othello". I'd love to see Alfred Hitchcock's film "Frenzy" or the original "Manchurian Candidate" as staged plays. I get shivers just thinking about watching those stories unfold in a live space.
photo credit: Sara Krulwich