Stage: Wednesday, November 14, 2002
7:30pm Thurs-Fri, 4pm and 8:30pm Sat, thru Dec 7 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $15-25. 817-877-3040.
Four-Finger Discount

Despite brave performances by its two actors, Circle Theatre’s Misery falls flat.


Very early during a performance of Misery at Circle Theatre, one of the characters performed a small but hair-raising gesture that boded well for the evening. Romance writer Paul Sheldon (Michael Corolla) lay bedridden and barely coherent in a remote farmhouse, tended to by the stranger (Kristina Baker as Annie Wilkes) who’d dragged him out of his overturned car after an accident. Sheldon’s face is scrunched up horribly as he tries, through a dark veil of pain, to understand where he is and what’s happened. Sensing he can take no more explanation, Wilkes moves gently to his bedside, puts a couple of painkillers at the edge of his pitifully open mouth ... and inserts four fingers almost to the knuckles to shove the pills down his throat until his eyes pop wide in gag reflex.

That’s one relatively benign example of what made Stephen King’s book visceral in the most literal sense — he almost celebrated the wretched responses your body will make when it’s banged up and then doped up to the edge of death. The title, Misery, denotes different things, such as how an author can suffer under the care of his “number-one fan,” as well as in the headlock of a commercial publishing industry that wants him to keep pleasing that fan. (Paul has written a stream-of-consciousness non-romance novel that drives Annie to torture.) Veteran screenwriter William Goldman came along in 1990 to adapt the novel for Rob Reiner’s movie and denuded the story of much of its preoccupation with body functions. The interpretation was tipped in Kathy Bates’ favor, and she gave an intelligent if flamboyant performance that said less about the bipolar nurse’s character than about a superbly talented actor playing catch-up after a career too long stalled in small roles.

Bates, of course, is a stage-bred performer, and it would be interesting to see how she’d tackle British adapter Simon Moore’s version of Misery. Moore has salvaged many of King’s infantile gimmicks — Sheldon, aching and parched from neglect, is at different moments forced to drink his own piss and the dirty water from a mop bucket. And intriguingly, Moore has souped up the Freudian undercurrent of a male child’s fear of his mother’s omnipotence over all things physical with frequent dialogue references to that dynamic in this author-fan relationship. Given the claustrophobic nature of the scenario, a stage transfer would seem natural, especially performed in an intimate, underground space like that of Circle Theatre.

Unfortunately, Circle has not responded gratefully to the red-ribboned gift dropped in its lap. This production of Misery, directed by Rene Moreno, is sometimes, um, painfully awkward during its labored search for a coherent mood and simpatico performances. There’s a not-so-subtle difference between waiting with nervous delight for the next thing to happen and wondering, as the show lurches toward its finale, whether anything unexpected will happen. Granted, Moreno and his two-actor cast worked under the disadvantage of expectations raised by a very popular movie. Film doesn’t compete fairly with stage — the cinematic event isn’t superior, but actors on celluloid are simply bigger, louder, and more immediately memorable. Most plays require a fine-tuned concentration, and Circle Theatre’s Misery isn’t delivered with enough compelling vigor to reintroduce the material.

Because Baker and Corolla periodically flash hints of virtuosity, I’ll blame director Moreno for the slack pace. Misery can work as comedy, tragedy, and sick horror simultaneously, but the director fails to sustain any of those moods and smudges them into a single note of stridency that drags the show down. His actors flail as a result. Baker seems annoyed and impatient rather than hypnotically disturbed; in the spirit of King’s little-boy obsession with the body, she’s usually as subtle as a case of menstrual cramps. But Corolla is annoying, partly because the character is so disdainful of the readers who launched his career, but mostly because Corolla plays him with a self-conscious actorishness — he enunciates certain words with unnecessary emphasis. The total disconnect between these two performers is sadly emphasized in a climactic physical brawl that wouldn’t pass muster in a college stage-fight class. There’s little physical logic and zero authenticity in the sight of a drug-addled, wheelchair-bound man and a tall, enraged woman somehow winding up wrestling on a bed. Playwright Simon Moore wanted to take us elsewhere — in the show’s best moment, Paul and Annie’s imaginations had already converged on “the dark continent” of Africa as he typed out the unlikely return of her beloved fictional heroine — but Circle Theatre’s staging dies abruptly during that mattress scuffle. The lingering impression of much misspent effort is the only discernibly comic, tragic, and horrific element to this hobbled production.

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