The Shark Is Broken, a new Broadway comedy about the behind-the-scenes arguments during the making of Jaws, often raises the question of whether Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster is art or entertainment.
History has shown it to be both – a monster film, yes, but one brimming with cinematic innovation and panache that led to a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture and enduring worldwide fame.
1 hour and 30 minutes without a break. At the Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St.
But the wishy-washy play by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, which premiered at the Golden Theater on Thursday, struggles to be either, as it stars actors Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw), Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) and Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) shows those vying for the throats of others off-camera.
They fight, fight again and then they fight some more.
The concept is definitely fun. We stop by the 1974 production of Jaws because it’s already $2 million over budget and the trio of hot-tempered actors on the set in Martha’s Vineyard are downtime every day because of the animatronic shark ( nicknamed Bruce) keeps malfunctioning.
All of this really happened – and resulted in a grueling five months to film Jaws.
So the fed-up actors drink, read the newspaper out loud, play old British pub games, puke and fight aboard the Orca to while away the time.
The effect of their macho antics, however, is about the same as listening to your drunk friends arguing about capitalism at 2am. They keep barking and get stuck, so you tune out.
The confrontations of major figures over who the true star of the film is – and who is the better actor – are neither groundbreaking nor very insightful. They start out amusingly petty and quickly become monotonous.
The trigger, however, is Ian Shaw. He is the son of Robert Shaw – the Shakespearean actor who played the rugged shark hunter Quint and died in 1978. Ian plays his father on the show he co-wrote.
So it’s no coincidence that he’s the best part of the Guy Masterson-directed play.
Ian is a spitting image of his dad, and he’s given himself the funniest lines, in part because Robert was also an accomplished writer. It’s fascinating how classic actors ended up in projects like Jaws before Marvel in the 1970s – another was Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars.
As entertaining as it is, no one here is specific enough. Roy, Robert and Richard are roughly defined by a single personality trait. Robert is the grizzled veteran, Roy is a nerd and Richard is a beaming jerk. When things change, it’s that they end up tolerating each other a little more.
Sometimes Shaw and Nixon’s dialogues sparkle with wit, and other times we keep groaning.
The piece is extremely conscious – too conscious! – about the legacy of Jaws and future events and references it endlessly. The shark is broken, but the winks are in full swing.
“UFO? “Aliens,” says Shaw after learning about Spielberg’s upcoming Close Encounters of the Third Kind project. “What’s next? Dinosaurs?!”
Another reads: “In 50 years nobody will be talking about this movie!”
A headline about Richard Nixon’s resignation is used to make a simple Trump joke.
Those many booming lines that reference Quint’s dramatic performance in Jaws are like nails on a board.
Regardless, there’s strong chemistry between the three performers, and they manage to transcend mere impressions – even while spot-on mimicking the film’s stars.
They inhabit Duncan Henderson’s functional Orca cross-section set, lovingly reminiscent of the film set against Nina Dunn’s projections of the Atlantic Ocean.
Still, the little Broadway play is gobbled up like a doomed teenager in Amity.
“Shark” was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019 and I’m sure it’s a show that would benefit from that kind of scuffle and intimacy.
Sometimes you need one smaller Boat.