NEW YORK — A rickety boat. Three guys with egos. And a massive, deadly shark. What could go wrong?
Not what you might be expecting with “The Shark Is Broken,” the lyrical play that opened Thursday about the trio of actors who enlivened the pioneering Steven Spielberg -directed movie “Jaws.”
Set on a boat off Martha’s Vineyard during filming in 1974, “The Shark Is Broken” is a moving comedy-drama, mirroring the way the movie segued from horror to playfulness so effortlessly.
It stars Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider, the police chief Brody; Alex Brightman as Richard Dreyfuss, the oceanographer Hooper; and Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw, the shark hunter Quint. The play instantly earns legitimacy because Ian Shaw is Robert’s lookalike son and a co-writer.
It’s about the backstage frustration of making the first summer blockbuster, of course — one audience member in line at a preview wearing a “Jaws” T-shirt will be pleased — but captures much more in its net.
The long idle hours due to the mechanical sharks’ malfunctioning and the onboard anger between actors produce spiky discussions about responsibility, trauma, fatherhood, acting, commerce and alcohol, often lubricated by Scotch.
“It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl,” Shaw tells his companions, explaining how personal clashes can help fuel their art. He’s right — he’s often the play’s grit, and it has produced a little pearl of a play.
The script — and Guy Masterson’s unfussy direction — never lets interest lag over the play’s 90, intermission-less minutes, the tension, humor, depth, silliness and horror coming like waves lapping the boat.
Quint’s famous USS Indianapolis speech — “1,100 men went in the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest” — forms the play’s backbone as Shaw struggles to initially memorize it, then rewrites it and finally delivers it masterfully.
Ian Shaw co-wrote the script with Joseph Nixon and based it on interviews, books and documentaries. They have made Regular Joes of cinematic heroes, an even harder task for the younger Shaw when it is your late dad you are portraying and creating dialogue for.
His Shaw is a squinty, non-nonsense, Shakespeare-quoting tough guy with financial and alcoholic problems who suffers fools poorly. Brightman’s Dreyfuss is a bundle of nervous insecurity — “Am I any good? As an actor?” he asks — while he thirsts for fame and yet also, perhaps impossibly, respectability. His physical humor is awesome.
Donnell as Scheider is the sensible one, a newspaper-reading, controlled pro, inserting dry facts into the discussion, sitting angularly and trying to keep the other two civil. (He finally reveals a delicious vein of frustration in one scene alone when his sunbathing is interrupted).
All three actors — think of them as nebbish, brutish and fastidious — pitch their performances well beyond caricature and more like inspiration, showing the audience their character’s quirks only as a way to understand them in a larger way as flawed and delightful men.
The audience is taken back to the insecurity before the release of “Jaws” and the worry anyone has if the project we’re working on is worth it. “Do you really think people are going to be talking about this in 50 years?” asks Shaw. He later offers this poor prediction: “This film is destined for the dustbin of history.”
Designer Duncan Henderson creates a messy boat and grounded the costumes into the time period, the mid-’70s when the legal sharks at the U.S. Capitol were circling then-President Richard Nixon. When he is asked what’s new one morning, Scheider replies: “War. Disease. Famine. Bombs. Terrorists. Riots. Religious maniacs. You know, the usual.”
Some of the highlights include a more-than-sly dig at former President Donald Trump — “There will never be a more immoral president than Tricky Dicky” — and the future of Hollywood: “Mark my words, boys, one day there will only be sequels. Sequels and remakes, and sequels to remakes and remakes of sequels.”
Perhaps ultimately, it is a play about passing the torch — embodied perfectly by the sight of one Shaw playing his own father — and saying goodbye to the older generation.
“I fear the future belongs to a generation of self-absorbed neurotics,” Shaw tells Scheider when Dreyfuss is notably away. “I think we’ll be in good hands, Robert,” comes the reply. We are indeed in good hands. There’s nothing broken on this stage besides sharks.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits