The eek! factor is largely missing from “Misery,” starring a laid-back Bruce Willis as the bed-bound author held hostage by his “greatest fan,” played here by Laurie Metcalf. Despite the physical intimacy imposed by its stage setting, William Goldman’s theatrical version of the 1987 Stephen King novel lacks the stifling sense of claustrophobia that made Rob Reiner’s 1990 movie version starring Kathy Bates and James Caan so unnerving. Or maybe the atmosphere of fear and dread was just wiped out by the show’s undercurrents of arch humor.
Woe to the bestselling author of pop fiction who attempts to break out of his successful rut and become “a serious writer of serious books.” Faithful to King’s personal nightmare, Goldman brings the wrath of the gods (and his fans) down on Paul Sheldon (Willis) when he tries to go straight.
In the winter of 1987 (well before cell phones and cordless hand phones), just outside Silver Creek in rural Colorado (where he always goes to finish his books), Paul crashes his car. He suffers two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, and would have died had Annie Wilkes (Metcalf) not pulled him out of the wreckage and hauled him home.
Annie’s home, which she inherited from her mother, is a study in arrested psychological development. David Korins’ elaborate Victorian dollhouse of a set moves on a turntable, revealing multiple rooms, all meticulously furnished with dated early-depression fussiness. Even the back porch, where Buster (Leon Addison Brown), the folksy sheriff, pays a few ill-advised visits.
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Paul learns of his close call when he awakens in pain in Annie’s bed, with both legs in casts and his arm in a sling. As a trained nurse, Annie has performed these medical tasks with ease. And as Paul’s “biggest fan,” as she keeps reminding him, she’s done it all with deep devotion. In gratitude, Paul lets her read the manuscript of his new book, the latest (and final, as it turns out) adventures of his romantic Regency heroine, Misery Chastain.
The bed-bound Paul is a purely reactive role; still, helmer Will Frears lets Willis get away with murder by maintaining his sophisticated-author cool well beyond the point of believability. It takes the iconic scene in which a maddened Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s healed legs to get the star to drop his sultry half-smile.
This leaves the field to Metcalf, a favorite stage thesp who maintains a strong theatrical presence despite a full dance card in film and television (“Getting On,” “The Big Bang Theory,” the “Toy Story” series). A grown-up waif in Ann Roth’s sad costumes of cardigan sweaters and one pathetically dated “good dress,” Annie is a pathological version of King’s rabid fans. Metcalf skillfully modulates her emotional transitions from adoring to obsessive to psychotic. Her eyelids flutter, her hand gestures quicken, and her vocal range reaches for the high notes.
It’s a stunning performance, even if, in this oddly fear-free production, she provokes more pity than terror.