Anything that has to do with Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 1975 film “Jaws” should be fun. After all, it’s a movie about the sudden appearance of a freakishly large, man-eating shark in a quaint New England vacation spot on a packed Fourth of July weekend, and the trio of men — a weathered shark hunter, an aquaphobic smalltown cop, and a strangely upbeat young scientist from Queens — who set out on the high seas in a dilapidated fishing boat to kill it. It’s one part “Moby Dick,” three parts campy disaster film.
But Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s play “The Shark is Broken,” which bills itself in its promo material as a “behind-the-scenes comedy about the making of ‘Jaws’,” is, under Guy Masterson’s direction, about as fun as a being stuck on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean for weeks on end with three tiresome men. Which is the premise of the play: The mechanical shark is broken for weeks, and so actors Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are forced to relate to one another with a certain kind of boorish but uninteresting intimacy (they arm wrestle, have push-up contests, play bar games, compare resumes, get drunk, argue etc.) in the cramped cabin of a fishing boat while waiting for filming to begin again.
This might have been a fascinating portrait of male ego and insecurity, with real insights into the workings of Hollywood in the 1970s — now that would have been fun. But written by the son of the late Robert Shaw (the aforementioned Ian Shaw, who plays his own father in the production), the piece feels like artless autobiography or maybe even a son’s revenge. The elder Shaw, who killed himself four years after making “Jaws,” is portrayed by the younger as a terrible drunk with the gravelly voice of a pirate (you know—har-har-har, matey), verbally abusing young Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman), an approval-seeking weenie who only the audience knows will soon become a star.
Shaw and Nixon set out to depict the monotony of movie sets, where actors can wait for hours between takes, and in the process they put their audience to sleep — literally. Duncan Henderson’s set is a cabin of a boat that resembles the ship in the film, and behind it are ever-changing video projections of the sea and the horizon, with the sound of waves and of gulls moving across the sky. As lovely as Nina Dunn’s video designs are, they become soporific when nothing much else is happening on stage.
To depict boredom in a boring way is a rookie move, as is using your characters for laughs by having them comment on a future that they could never imagine, but that the audience has lived through. “There will never be a more immoral President than Tricky Dicky,” a character says at one point, getting a big laugh at our recently indicted ex-President’s expense. But you go to the theater enough and you realize that everybody’s making that same Trump joke, and it’s a stale stand-in for exciting, inspired humor.
Still, in the midst of mediocrity, Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider stands out, mainly because his performance, like Scheider’s in the film, is, for the most part, understated. He’s the character who stands back and watches, and his ability to empathize with his mates makes them seem less like caricatures and more human.
There’s a moment in the play when he’s alone on deck and he slowly removes his clothes, down to his Speedo, in anticipation of sunbathing in a folding chair and having a smoke. He takes his time, and in the silence the audience awakens and sits up in their seats, waiting for what will happen next. Which proves the point: Art doesn’t have to be about much—it can even be about a shark. It just depends on whose lens you’re looking through.
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