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Hugh Jackman takes stage in The River


Hugh Jackman takes stage in The River

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NEW YORK (AP) – Those who find they haven’t really a taste for Jez Butterworth’s latest, enigmatic play will find a diversion to keep them happy – a cooking demonstration by Hugh Jackman.

The talented star of the wistful and haunted The River wordlessly guts a real trout about halfway through the play, chops a fennel bulb – displaying some excellent Top Chef knife skills – then slips lemon slices into the skin and seasons the dish before popping it into the oven.

It’s a show-stopping moment in more ways than one. The River, which opened Sunday at the Circle in the Square Theatre, is slow to build its magic and the trout preparation brings it to a halt. The decision to let this sequence drag on so excruciatingly actually guts the work itself.

Butterworth’s 90-minute play, which made its debut in London in 2012, has rightly been compared to a silvery, shimmering fish, twisting and turning just out of reach. It’s about love and repetition and the past returning to haunt the present. Compared with the playwright’s last play Jerusalem, the new one is smaller, though no less ambitious.

Jackson plays a trout fisherman in a remote cabin who is visited by some of the loves of his life. The script warps time and memory cleverly and is directed by Ian Rickson with a flair for mirroring images, quick dialogue and a respect for stillness, marred only by that fishy stuff.

Muscles rippling in an otherworldly manner, Jackman is ably supported by two strong actresses – Laura Donnelly, who is perfectly languid, sensuous and mysterious, and Cush Jumbo, who nails the defensive insecurity and flirtatiousness of a new, anxious lover. They both add different, complex flavours to the dish.

Jackson himself is earnest and slightly flabbergasted as his character’s narrative and memory gradually crack, but lacks any real slipperiness, making him more a victim of circumstance than a man complicit in his past tales. The actor’s natural sweetness shines through when what we really want to see is the rogue. The role may get more mileage from a wolf, not a Wolverine.