‘The Shark Is Broken’ Broadway Review: Gentle Comedy Snatches Life From Jaws Of Movie History

There’s at least one shark that’s not showing up in New York City these days: Bruce, the famous mechanical predator of Steven Spielberg’s sea horror classic Jaws, is the Godot-like presence in the Ian Shaw-Joseph Nixon comedy The Shark Is Broken, an amiable, slight new behind-the-movie-scenes play opening a 16-week engagement on Broadway tonight.

Set on the floating junk heap of a fishing vessel instantly familiar from 1975 movie, The Shark Is Broken features three fine, uncannily on-point performances from Alex Brightman (as a hilariously neurotic and “snow”-snorting Richard Dreyfus), co-playwright Shaw (a dead-ringer, both in looks and mannerism, for his late father Robert Shaw, who played sharkhunter Quint in the film) and Colin Donnell (as the peacemaking Roy Scheider).

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Directed by Gus Masterson on a terrifically effective single set by Duncan Henderson (who also designed the period-perfect costumes) and with lighting and video designs (Jon Clark, Nina Dunn, respectively) so vivid you can almost smell the salt air, The Shark Is Broken moves more efficiently than ol’ Bruce ever did, but unlike the cinematic Great White, the play provides few surprises.

The 1974 filming off Martha’s Vineyard is one of Hollywood’s legendary troubled shoot tales, with a yet-to-prove-himself young director, a worried studio, a brazen on-location plan and three actors who spent their considerable waiting-for-Bruce-to-function downtime drinking (Shaw), snorting (Dreyfus), bickering (Shaw and Dreyfus) and coming quietly unglued (Scheider).

The problem facing the playwrights is finding a new hook (sorry) in telling this oft-told making-of-a-fish tale. Much of the behind-the-scenes details have been widely known since the 1970s, in part due to the outstanding memoir The Jaws Log by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb. Indeed, the on-set difficulties have become so entrenched in cultural lore that the title of this play needs no explanation or elaboration to reel in audiences.

And even though the film cast’s personality clashes are nearly as legendary as the mechanical shark’s short circuits, the play’s authors and performers deliver such nicely detailed characterizations that The Shark Is Broken holds our interest throughout its 95 minutes. The play builds to its denouement – a flawless re-creation of the film’s indelible USS Indianapolis scene – with considerable story-telling skill. Shaw, as Shaw, drunkenly muffles the Indianapolis speech in an early-in-the-play rehearsal scene, and though everyone in the audience knows full well that he’ll pull it together in the end, the pacing by the actor and director Masterson manages against the odds to build some tension.

Fans of the film – who isn’t? – will be delighted with the attention to detail on this Broadway stage, right down to that famous shooting star accidentally captured by the late, great cinematographer Bill Butler. Much of the enjoyment, of course, comes from watching the play’s first-rate cast capture the film’s first-rate cast both physically and in spirit without ever slipping into caricature or mean-spirited parody.

Helping immensely is Adam Cork’s evocative soundscape, all watery and late-night mood. There’s a fleeting hint, but no more, of John Williams’ famous Jaws theme at the start of the play, and whatever rationale, legal or otherwise, that fed into the decision to go easy on the music is to be praised: Even as it is, the slightly rearranged musical notes set up an expectation that ultimately can’t be met. Beyond its good will and nostalgic conjuring, The Shark Is Broken is too slender a tale, too gentle, to provide thrills or even, truth be told, much drama. It’s easy to imagine the delight of unexpectedly stumbling upon the production when it played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019. On Broadway, it feels a bit out of its depth.

Title: The Shark Is Broken
Venue: Broadway’s Golden Theatre
Director: Guy Masterson
Written By: Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
Cast: Alex Brightman, Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw
Running time: 95 min (no intermission)

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