By: David Sheward
August 12, 2023: “What do you think it’s about?,” asks Alex Brightman, referring to the deeper meaning of Jaws, the movie his character Richard Dreyfuss is filming with co-stars Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw as his father). After Dreyfuss and Scheider posit weighty theories on responsibility and destiny, the no-nonsense Shaw answers, “It’s about a shark!” The same question and directly simple answer could be made about The Shark Is Broken, the play co-written by the younger Shaw and Joseph Nixon that contains these entertaining actors (both the performers and their roles). It’s not really about anything deep or complex, but a loving tribute to the co-author’s father and a spicy, funny behind-the-scenes peek at the making of a summer blockbuster. Don’t expect any profound musings on the craft of acting, the art of cinema, or the tragedy of alcoholism destroying a promising career—Shaw was a gifted writer as well as a dynamic stage and screen presence. Just sit back and enjoy the juicy tidbits of gossip, the unchecked histrionics, and the backstage scuttlebutt.
The basic content of this 90-minute entertainment is the three stars passing the time between takes while the titular aquatic killing machine, a huge mechanical menace nicknamed Bruce, is being repaired after its frequent breakdowns. They play cards and pub games, they discuss their careers and reveal their pasts, they fight and make up until the final scene is shot. The main conflict is between the quick-tempered, alpha-male Shaw and the neurotic, insecure Dreyfuss with Scheider acting as referee and buffer between the two so they don’t kill each other.
The play is slight. It’s significant that the most impactful and emotional moments come from other sources—Shaw quoting Shakespeare, Scheider quoting Casablanca, and Shaw performing his Jaws character Capt. Quint’s harrowing account of surviving a massive shark attack (the star rewrote the speech, editing it down from four pages in the original screenplay). There are also several easy, ironic gags about Trump, climate change, and the future dumbing-down of mass-market movies. But Ian Shaw and Nixon’s script has numerous hilarious scenes of Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss attempting to one-up each other, directed with precision by Guy Masterson.
Scheider’s role is underdeveloped and, in attempt to beef it up, he is given a superfluous solo, nearly silent, scene where he strips down to a bikini for a much longed-for sunbath, but explodes with frustration when he is called to the set after numerous delays. This doesn’t really develop his character and only succeeds in exposing Donnell’s admirable physique. The hypnotic original music by Adam Cork is another weird choice. Played in between scenes, it sounds like everyone is about to have a dream in a cartoon.
Fortunately, the three-man cast enlivens the material and delivers incisive portrayals of actors at crucial stages of their careers. Brightman is devastatingly funny as the brainy, but child-like Dreyfuss, seeking approval from the more experienced Shaw while challenging the father figure. Donnell has the most difficult assignment since Scheider’s role is so bland. His main activity is reading the newspaper and spouting little-known facts. Yet Donnell manages to create a vital through-line for his role: maintaining peace and getting through the picture with everyone in tact. In the central role, Shaw brilliantly recreates his father’s bluster and charisma and as well as his vulnerability, particularly during drunk scenes. Duncan Henderson’s detailed set of the confining boat and cabin the video design by Nina Dunn for Pixellux create the perfect backdrop for this flawed but fascinating behind-the-scenes comedy-drama.
In The Shark Is Broken, Robert Shaw complains about the proliferation of sequels and remakes in popular movies. That disease has overtaken Broadway as well. Prime example: Back to the Future, the musical version of the popular 1985 sci-fi film comedy now on Broadway after an award-winning run in the West End. At least Shark offers a different spin on Jaws, but Future is a retread of a familiar favorite. If you’ve ever been to Universal Studios theme park, as you enter the Winter Garden Theater, you might get the feeling you’ve been here before. Bob Gale’s book is basically the same as the movie with touches of the now-retired ride version at Universal Studios. Tim Hatley’s amazing set, Tim Lutkin and Hugh Vanstone’s flashy lighting, Finn Ross’s thrilling video, and the flying DeLorean auto which serves as a time machine are the real stars here. Chris Fisher is listed as illusion designer which I assume means he had something to do with the truly stunning tricks the car performs.
As time-traveling teenager Marty McFly and eccentric scientist Doc Brown, Casey Likes and Roger Bart are proficient, professional performers paying tribute to Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, the original stars, but they don’t emerge as personalities of their own. Bart does garner some well-earned laughs by downplaying Doc’s goofy mad-inventor schtick. The only inventive bit not from the movie involves a hysterical metatheatrical moment with the chorus. I won’t spoil it, but Bart milks for all it’s worth. Hugh Coles, from the British cast, goes way overboard in his almost cringeworthy characterization of Marty’s nerdy milksop dad. Liana Hunt has tenderness and wit as Marty’s mom. Nathaniel Hackman hilariously delivers lame brained lunacy as the town bully. Jelani Remy, Amber Ardolino, and Merritt David Janes make the most of multiple supporting roles.
As in Shark, the most memorable numbers are from outside sources: “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News, written for the soundtrack of the 1985 film and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (also used in the film.) Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s songs are largely forgettable pastiches of pop tunes and Broadway standard-tropes. Fortunately, John Rando’s direction and Chris Bailey’s choreography keeps the action moving. Back to the Future is easy, familiar fun and by the end of the evening, I was rooting for Marty and his family, even as I was aware of the show’s shortcomings.
In Shark, Robert Shaw observes his worst movies made the most money. That’s probably true for Back to the Future on Broadway as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if stage versions of Jaws and Future sequels will be on the way in upcoming seasons.
The Shark Is Broken ***
Aug. 10—Nov. 19. Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Running time: 95 mins. with no intermission. telecharge.com
Photography: Mathew Murphy
Back to the Future:***
Opened Aug. 3 for an open run. Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Running time: two hours and 40 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com
Photography: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman