Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review: Misery

Bucks County Playhouse's world premiere "Misery," based on the Stephan King book and subsequent film, mirrors the movie at bit too closely to make its own statement, says critic Wendy Rosenfield..

Review: Misery


By Wendy Rosenfield


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


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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