On their last day of shooting “Jaws,” its three stars sit around the table of a cramped fishing boat, shooting the breeze, as they had done for most of the 95 minutes of “The Shark Is Broken.” They argue about who should get top billing in the movie, then talk about what they might do next. Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) says: “Steven was telling me about this idea for a new movie he’s got” — about UFOs, where the aliens are the good guys.
“Aliens! Jesus!” Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) scoffs. “Whatever next? Dinosaurs?”
This gets a big laugh. The joke depends, of course, on your knowledge of the career of “Steven” (Spielberg )– that “Jaws” would become a massive hit, that he would follow it two years later with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” about UFOs (starring Richard Dreyfus) and sixteen years after that with “Jurassic Park” about dinosaurs – also both massive hits.
I suppose if you knew nothing about Steven Spielberg or “Jaws” or the blockbuster’s three stars — Robert Shaw , Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss – you might still be able to appreciate “The Shark Is Broken” as a kind of Beckett-light pop play about three characters who spend most of their time waiting for something to happen.
But it’s the reflected cinematic glory in this modest stage comedy that surely explains why, four years after its month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, it has opened tonight on Broadway. The production is not an embarrassment. All three actors give uncanny impersonations that sometimes shade into nuanced portraits. The design team does an impressive job with a subtly animated, ever-changing backdrop for the fishing boat of rolling sea and cloud-streaked sky.
The main question, though, is why: Why do a backstage comedy about “Jaws” almost half a century after its release?
The only obvious answer is that the show needed to wait until Robert Shaw’s son Ian got to be as old as his father was when he portrayed Quint, the irascible shark hunter in the film. Ian Shaw, one of Robert’s ten children, was six then; he’s now 53, making his Broadway debut as the play’s co-writer and co-star.
Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws; Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw in The Shark is Broken
Spielberg has said that he didn’t direct the sequel to Jaws (never mind Jaws 3 or Jaws 4) because he had “such a horrible time at sea on the first film.”
It’s those horrible conditions that drive the action – or, more precisely, the inaction – of “The Shark Is Broken.” The three actors are shown waiting to film their scenes while the unseen tech crew fix the mechanical shark, or the weather clears up, or there are no longer any boats on the water getting in the way of the shot. On rare occasion one of them rehearses their role, and there is one scene from the movie (a dramatic one) that’s performed in full. Most of the time, however, the three actors are finding ways to pass the time – drinking (that’s Shaw’s specialty) playing cards or tabletop games (again Shaw); arguing (Shaw and Dreyfus); reading the New York Times (Scheider), especially about the serious jeopardy facing this nation’s constitutional form of government because of the actions of President Richard Nixon (an inadvertent relevance that gets another big laugh); complaining (Dreyfuss.) Richard admires Spielberg, just 28 years at the time, but also complains about him, especially his decision to film on the ocean, rather than using one of the movie studio’s water tanks:
Alex Brightman stands out for his comic histrionics throughout the play, but this particular exchange feels to me like a gentile’s misunderstanding of Jewish humor, and it’s not the only thing about it that gives me pause. It is also one of the scenes in which the personas of the movie actors seem suspiciously close (i.e., identical) to the characters they are playing. Richard (like Hooper) is nebbishy and obnoxious, Robert (like Quint) a tough guy and a teaser, Roy (like Brody) steady, calm and intellectual, a peacemaker who mediates the tensions between the other two.
At the same time, we also get tidbits of their actual biographies, some of it fascinating. We learn, for example, that Robert Shaw was an admired Shakespearean, a friend of Harold Pinter, and a playwright in his own right, who rewrote the most famous speech in “Jaws,” about Quint’s experience being attacked by sharks after the USS Indianapolis sank in the Philippine Seaduring World War II, Shaw was also an alcoholic, like his father, who killed himself when Robert was 12.
It’s hard to argue that Shaw or Scheider (who both died years ago) or Dreyfuss (now retired) hold the same popular allure as, say, Elvis or Marilyn or several other long-dead, still-worshipped celebrities. But it’s also useless to pretend that much of the appeal of “The Shark Is Broken” is any different from what draws us to a cheesy biopic. I half expected (and – honestly – half wanted) sentences projected onto the stage at the end explaining what happened to each of the three actors, like: Roy Scheider achieved pop cult status for his role in Jaws, and went on to star in Jaws2. He was nominated for his second Oscar (after the French Connection) for his role as Bob Fosse in All That Jazz in 1980. He died in 2008 at the age of 75.
At one point, the three actors offer differing views of what “Jaws” is about:
(Again, comic foreshadowing)
I can’t picture anybody debating the meaning of “The Shark Is Broken”
It should be possible to do a stage play inspired by a movie that isn’t just capitalizing on the movie’s appeal, but forging something new. It’s been done before. The play “Geniuses,” by Jonathan Reynolds, which ran to great acclaim at Playwrights Horizons, was a thinly disguised take on his experiences on the set of the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which was beset with even more problems than “Jaws.” Reynold’s play is a hilarious take-no-prisoners parody of moviemaking, but it also says something sharp about intelligent people corrupted by their vanity, ambition or greed into making bad choices, or looking the other way when others do.
“Geniuses” ran Off-Broadway in the 1980s. Much has changed since then. I thought of the changes near the end of “The Shark Is Broken,” when shortly after Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw pooh-poohs movies about aliens and dinosaurs, he has a similar reaction to their speculation about whether “Jaws” will spawn a sequel: “Mark my words boys, one day there will only be sequels. Sequels and remakes, and sequels to remakes and remakes of sequels.”
What would the elder Shaw have said, I wonder, about all the Broadway shows remade as movies, and Broadway shows made from movies, such as this one by his son?
The Shark Is Broken
John Golden Theater through November 19, 2023
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $59 – $195. Rush: $30
Co-written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
Directed by Guy Masterson,
Scenic and costume design by Duncan Henderson, lighting design
by Jon Clark, sound design and original music by Adam Cork, video design by Nina Dunn,
Cast: Alex Brightman as Richard Dreyfuss, Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider, and Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw