This ‘Jaws’ play didn’t need a bigger theatre
The Shark is Broken
By Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, directed by Guy Masterson. Until Nov. 6 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. mirvish.com/shows/the-shark-is-broken or 800-461-3333.
They didn’t need a bigger theatre.
This behind-the-scenes dramedy about the making of the film “Jaws” originated in UK Fringe festivals, with an approximately hour-long running time in small venues. One can imagine it working well in those intimate conditions, given the play’s focus on the psychological pressures the famously fraught shoot put on the film’s three stars.
Great reviews and the central presence of Ian Shaw — son of Robert Shaw, who played the grizzled shark hunter Quint in the film — propelled the show to London’s West End, where it ran at 90 minutes in a 400-seat house. This is the version now struggling to fill the space of Toronto’s 1,000-plus-seat Royal Alexandra Theatre: performances are exaggerated, and the lack of a central plot line glares.
Thanks to multiple documentaries, books, and interviews, the story behind the making of “Jaws” has become well-known. It was 26-year-old Steven Spielberg’s first major motion picture, the script was in constant rewrite and the mechanical shark nicknamed “Bruce” kept malfunctioning. This all added up to huge delays and wild budget overruns — and yet the film became a massive box office success and the paradigmatic summer blockbuster.
The new angle here is co-writer Ian Shaw’s focus on the relationship between his alcoholic father (whom he portrays) and co-stars Richard Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) and Roy Scheider (Demetri Goritsas). They are holed up in the tiny cabin of the Orca, the boat where the movie’s famously intense second half takes place, waiting to be called to set. Dreyfuss is nervy and self-absorbed; Shaw is eloquent and tortured; and Scheider is reading the New York Times.
After clunky exposition — Scheider asks: “What do you think of Steven?” — there is some smart writing to develop character, such as Robert Shaw’s tendency toward heightened turns of phrase (“We have angered Neptune”). Ian Shaw delivers these lines with keen timing in a booming English burr.
The substance of the play is male bonding in the face of stifling boredom. They talk about current events, sing songs and play a game that involves flicking a coin across a table. Shaw drinks and drinks. Dreyfuss does push-ups. Scheider brings Shaw an Alka-Seltzer. Eventually, Dreyfuss and Shaw come to blows, Scheider mediates, and they all have a heart-to-heart about their dads.
Robert Shaw’s contribution to the “Jaws” screenplay is acknowledged, and his struggles with drink underlined, in a repeated scene in which he hones Quirt’s famous speech about the USS Indianapolis.
The play opens with the famous two-beat tone of John Williams’s score, but the tension that characterizes the film is crucially lacking. One is left to imagine how being close enough to the actors to feel the energy between them and catch the nuances of their interactions may have held earlier versions of the production together.
Duncan Henderson’s set design is skilled and witty: it’s as if the shark has taken a big bite off the side of the boat so that we can peer within. Video design by Nina Dunn, sound by Adam Cork, and shifting lighting by Jon Clark convincingly create the impression of being on the ocean, but this ends up adding to the play’s sense of stasis — the waves never peak, nor does the action.
The actors look uncannily like the people they’re playing, most of all Shaw, a ringer for his father down to the ’70s hairdo and moustache. Henderson’s costumes also closely echo those in the film — Dreyfuss’s pink Henley shirt, Shaw’s army cap — though Goritsas disappointingly doesn’t get drenched in a sexy black sweater the way Scheider did in the film’s shark-fighting scenes.
This is what watching the play comes down to — small rewards for noting the similarities to and differences from the film itself (and yes, the famous “gonna need a bigger boat” line is glossed more than once). The show will likely be best enjoyed by hardcore “Jaws” fans, though it seems that under better conditions it had the capacity to offer more.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION