By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
Let’s play a word association game: if I say “Mister Man,” what image comes to mind? How about “hobbling?” “Dirty birdie?” For much of the moviegoing public, these associations end at the 1990 film adaptation of Stephen King’s thriller Misery, with Kathy Bates’ deranged nurse and “number-one fan” Annie Wilkes looming over James Caan as her bedbound prisoner, romance author Paul Sheldon. Bates’ Oscar-winning performance also looms large over Bucks County Playhouse’s world premiere stage play Misery, also adapted from King’s novel, and that’s exactly the problem with this production.
It makes perfect sense to coax a story from stage to screen; you can do more visually and share it with a wider audience. It also makes sense to transform a film into a musical. But to take a film -- not some underrated indie, but one featuring an iconic character -- use the same screenwriter (William Goldman), and change almost nothing ... well, what’s the point?
There’s even less point if director Will Frears casts Daniel Gerroll, a Caan-ish physical type, as Sheldon, and directs Johanna Day, more than capable of fashioning her own spin on Annie, to mimic Bates’ cadences (James DeMarse’s sheriff Buster, however, seems to have gotten into Annie’s painkillers, with a performance less mountain-man stoic than catatonic). Despite a first-class production team, and aside from Michael Friedman’s terrific original music, all tension-filled pizzicato and sharp Hitchcockian strings, this is a faithful tribute to the film, which is itself readily available.
The good news is that Misery, whether on paper, film or stage, retains a sense of humor about itself, and though this production’s still only in the development stage, it’s fun for newbies. But if Goldman’s effort, unlike others (by my count, this is the third attempt at staging the book), truly has Broadway ambitions, it needs to embrace the stage, not fight it. Consider The 39 Steps, which succeeded because it used Foley artistry to differentiate itself from its source. Here, David Korins’ bedroom set zooms in and out like a camera’s lens, brief early scenes fade in and black out as if cut in the editing room, and long, silent later scenes, without closeups or variations on perspective to enhance the narrative, drag as long as it takes Gerroll to haul himself across Annie’s bedroom floor.
Worse, Paul’s hobbling, with a pair of fake feet facing center stage and a dull thud in place of cracking bones, just looks silly and unconvincing. By purchasing theater tickets, we’ve already agreed to suspend our disbelief; forget realism, turn him away and let us use our imaginations. That’s usually scarier, anyway.
King’s winking style and the story’s claustrophobia also make it ideal fodder for a chamber musical, perhaps the hit another King adaptation, Carrie, just missed. It’s a shame the producers didn’t let Friedman really have his way with the material. “You better start showing some 'preciation, Mister Man” sure has the ring of a catchy refrain.
Through Dec. 8 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope. Tickets: $39-$54. Information: 215-862-2121 or www.BCPTheater.org