Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023

Forty-eight Junes ago, summer changed. A twenty-seven-year-old, as yet unknown Steven Spielberg released a shark movie, and thanks in part to some stunning casting choices—Roy Scheider as a decent police chief, Richard Dreyfuss in peppery scientist mode, the flinty British actor Robert Shaw as the Ahab-like fisherman Quint—the result ate the box office. “Jaws” shifted Hollywood, which shifted the culture as a whole. At sea, when a whale dies, it can fall to the ocean floor and decay into a nutrient-rich structural reef, the basis of a food web that can last for decades. When “Jaws” landed in 1975, it generated its own ecosystem, too. The modern movie industry, with its summer tentpoles, youth-oriented programming, and marketing blitzes, was born in its guts.

“The Shark Is Broken,” a play by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, now at the John Golden Theatre, also takes shelter in the “Jaws” skeleton: it’s a behind-the-scenes comedy that imagines frequently irritable chats among the movie’s three main actors as they wait around for weeks, delayed by the movie’s malfunctioning rubber-skinned star. Scheider (Colin Donnell), Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman), and Shaw (Ian Shaw, both writing about and playing his own father) idle away the time on the set’s lobster boat, which bobs in the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. They talk about everything under the New England sun, like Dreyfuss’s yearning for fame and Shaw’s constant boozing, and we see how desperate the eager pup (Dreyfuss) is to impress the salty dog (Shaw). There’s also a certain amount of meta-theatrical ironizing, subtle as a harpoon.“Do you really think anyone will be talking about this in fifty years?” Robert Shaw scoffs at the two younger men. Thunk.

People have been fascinated by the making of “Jaws” since it opened. A memoir by the co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, “The Jaws Log,” from 1975, has sold millions of copies; revelations about disasters on set and cast tensions have made the movie’s triumph seem even sweeter. The play’s raison d’être, though, seems to be Ian Shaw’s desire to honor his father—or perhaps to reckon with his father’s stature, measuring himself against a pattern cut by a man who died when he was eight. To do that, Shaw and Nixon’s script lets the son take several cracks at the development of his father’s most famous scene, a monologue about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. (“Eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest.”) Accentuating the sense that we’re watching a Shaw fils showcase, the writers also sneak in a surprising amount of Shakespeare, including a handsomely delivered Sonnet 29, which Shaw père uses to calm Dreyfuss during a panic attack, and a wordless scene in which he seems to contend with a storm, à la King Lear.

The other actors didn’t write their parts, so they’re served fewer plums: Brightman, always the funniest thing onstage, nails his imitation of Dreyfuss, down to the rabbity giggle, but he’s there mainly as a neurotic target for barbs, and Donnell isn’t allowed any Shakespeare or much comic business. The writers focus on only three of Scheider’s data points: his tan, his calm, and his zero-body-fat boxer’s physique. Because it’s a dad play about a dad movie written for dad reasons—I say this as a real fan of dads—Scheider does mention his father at one point, but he mostly serves as a two-dimensional sounding board and hype man for the parts of Robert Shaw’s career that Johnny-come-lately fans might not know, like his stage work or his writing.

Duncan Henderson’s Broadway set is grand: a photorealistic re-creation of the boat, sliced in half, set against an immense video-screen sky. (The glittering projections are by Nina Dunn.) Yet “Shark” is really a very small three-hander, scuttling like a hermit crab inside the “Jaws” whale fall. I don’t mean that there’s something inherently unseemly here—scavengers, like sharks, are unfairly maligned—but Spielberg’s gorgeous and undiminished film is the show’s indispensable scaffolding, and you need it playing in the back of your mind for the story to make sense.

“Shark” started its slow swim toward Broadway at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, and it’s notable that the play’s prolific director, Guy Masterson, specializes in Fringe productions with showy casting: he kicked off his career there in 1994 by reciting “Under Milk Wood,” by Dylan Thomas, emphasizing the poem’s connection to Masterson’s own famous uncle, Richard Burton. There’s a particular Fringe style he’s employing here—thrift dusted with celebrity, spiced with winking commentary meant to make a late-night Edinburgh audience slosh their pints. Scaled for a Broadway house, though, these I-know-you-know jokes, like a mild gag about Spielberg’s career (“Whatever next? Dinosaurs?”), can sound hacky. Worse, that unchallenging, jokey tone undercuts the intriguing psychodrama at the play’s core.

There are times when “Shark” seems like a dramatized version of the movie’s IMDb trivia page; we find out, for instance, who came up with the legendary “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line: it was Spielberg, shouting a suggestion to Scheider as cameras rolled. Yet it seems to expect us to know one fact without being told—that Robert Shaw died a few years after shooting “Jaws,” at only fifty-one. (Ian Shaw is fifty-three.) If you’re conscious of Robert Shaw’s imminent death, it lends a certain eerieness to everything Ian Shaw is doing onstage. He’s a softer actor than his father, and that pliability means he can contort himself into the other man’s shape. In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a taunting spirit tells a son that his drowned father has been transformed underwater into something “rich and strange.” Ian Shaw inflicts that sea change on himself, staring out from his father’s familiar face, speaking in his father’s familiar voice, becoming not his father but an uncanny, full-fathom-five changeling copy.

It’s the season for this sort of thing. British movie-reënactment fever has hit Broadway, thanks to this import from the West End and another, the “Back to the Future” musical, playing a few blocks away, at the Winter Garden. There, too, the actors are exactly aping performances that are now decades old; Casey Likes doesn’t just play Marty McFly, boy guitarist and time traveller—he plays Michael J. Fox playing Marty McFly, imitating each gesture Fox made with his chin in 1985. I did not, I admit, enjoy “Shark” or “Future” on their own comic terms, but I did find that thinking about the pair of them sent me into long reveries about what theatre is for. In my bleaker thoughts, I wondered whether drama has been reduced to a kind of auxiliary feature for cinematic intellectual property, aiming to produce only minor feelings like recognition and comfort. The cheerier ideas were about theatre as graveside ritual, in which we impersonate or digest our ancestors to defeat death. So not that much cheerier.

There’s a bit in “Shark” when the three men note that Spielberg didn’t want celebrities in the lead roles—for “reasons of realism,” Scheider says. In the play’s case, Ian Shaw’s casting does certainly break open its realistic surface. What does that leave? I think it turns the show into a caliper that gauges the widening distances between this fallen world of glossy imitations and the movie’s grittier, brinier one; between one Shaw and another; between Spielberg’s ambitious fusion of art and entertainment and what we find ourselves watching now.

For example, Donnell’s Scheider has a wordless scene in which he strips to his micro-swimsuit to sunbathe. To prepare, Donnell has whittled himself into a hard-muscled sculpture. He’s done impressive work, but he doesn’t actually resemble Scheider, who was thin as a tomcat, yes, but also relaxed and liquid in his skin. The strip sequence is dramaturgically unnecessary, but at least it’s metaphorically telling about the immense effort it takes to copy another generation. Copying has its costs; certain kinds of reverence are corrosive. Perhaps the “Jaws” whale fall has all rotted away, and there’s finally too little of its original nourishment to go around. Did I mention that the latest shark movie, “Meg 2: The Trench,” is now in theatres? Scrape and scrape at those bones, but eventually there’s nothing there but ocean floor. ♦

#Shark #Broken #Circles #Guts #Jaws

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