First Nighter: Willis, Metcalf Make Stephen King's "Misery" Extremely Pleasurable

First Nighter: Willis, Metcalf Make Stephen King's "Misery" Extremely Pleasurable
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Stage thrillers come along once in a very blue moon--and good ones in even fewer extremely blue moons. In the last several decades we've only had Dial M for Murder, Witness for the Prosecution, Write Me a Murder, Wait Until Dark, Night Watch and Deathtrap. (If there are others, they're not occurring to me.)

So when they elbow their way in, we have to be glad. Which is a way of saying we have to be glad that Misery has arrived at the Broadhurst--or maybe I should say dial "M" for Misery. Audiences are going to eat it up with a soupspoon. It's William Goldman's adaptation of Stephen King's typically gory novel with liberties taken. (Always remember the Goldman wrote the 1991 screenplay, too, with some different liberties taken.)

During a severe snowstorm, the successful novelist Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis, replacing the film's James Caan) has been rescued from an automobile accident in a remote Silver Creek, Colorado spot. Luckily but only to an extent, his rescuer is Annie Wilkes (Laurie Metcalf, replacing the film's Oscar-winning Kathy Bates), who's not only a crackerjack nurse but, as she says proudly and repeatedly, Sheldon's "number-one fan."

His right shoulder damaged and both legs broken, Sheldon needs the attention Wilkes is giving him--frequent doses of (fictional) Novril, for instance--but as the days pass in David Korins's clever replica of a post-Victorian farm house, those ministrations become more and more reliant on Sheldon's acceding to Wilkes's whims as a fan.

You see--and if you haven't viewed or don't recall the movie, you need to know this--Wilkes is a puritanical gal and, much as she worships Sheldon's genius, she takes strong issue with a memoir he's written in scatological language and allowed her to peruse. No meds for him, she insists, if he doesn't burn the offending manuscript. It's an action he reluctantly takes.

Worse still for him, in a plot where things only get increasingly worse, Wilkes reads the ninth novel in Sheldon's Misery Chastain series and discovers that the heroine she admires so devoutly dies.

Since she won't have any of that, she insists that Sheldon resuscitate the dead-and-buried Misery. She vehemently declares she won't tend to him in their isolated surroundings unless he gets cracking on the typewriter with a bum "n" she brings home and with the particular paper he likes to type on. (We're in 1987, which explains the absence of a computer on which Sheldon, or, for that matter, King, might compose his latest bestseller.)

(Has King ever revealed that he came to write Misery after dealing with an obsessive fan? Makes a kind of sense, but if he's said so, I've missed it. Or maybe it's his nightmare of how he'll eventually have to pay for his success.)

Though Sheldon succumbs to Wilkes's demands--and even comes to like what he's writing--he's more than casually aware he must free himself from mad, sometimes cruel, sometimes girlish, Wilkes's clutches.

The remainder of the chilling book (as in the book and movie) follows Sheldon's machinations and Wilkes's catching on to them until an explosive denouement that Goldman vivifies, as do director Will Frears, Willis, Metcalf and the fine Leon Addison Brown as a suspicious local cop.

Though Willis is top-billed for obvious reasons, he's involved himself in a die-hard situation unlike those he's vanquished on the screen. Confined to bed and eventually moved to a wheelchair--with the aid of a sling, leg braces and post-accident make-up (Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young)--he's called on to give the occasional anguished cry, which he does with vocal conviction.

Most of the time, however, he's engaged in figuring out how he's going to outsmart the calculating Wilkes. He does it with aplomb and, incidentally with none of the pauses attributed to him by preview audiences buzzing about the supposed ear prompters on which he might have been relying. With them or without them, he gives a strong performance made additionally gallant by his deferring to Metcalf.

For there's no mistaking that Misery is a vehicle for her, and she rides it as if besting a mechanical bull. The breadth of the demands on her--from adoring fan to punishing captor--is extremely wide, and she delivers throughout. One minute she's glorying in the opening chapter of Sheldon's new Misery Returns. The next she's withholding the Novril. One minute she's dressed up in her fanciest clothes for what she believes is a romantic dinner with Sheldon. (Costumer Ann Roth had the spot-on idea of what Wilkes would consider dressy.) The next she's wielding a mallet for dire purposes.

Over the years, Metcalf has played any number of Broadway and off-Broadway roles to great effect. This one decidedly contrasts with her now long-gone Roseann days. There she shone as a sympathetic second banana Here, she proves herself--not for the first time--as a leading lady to reckon with in more than one sense of the phrase.

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