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Inside the design of the Broadway adaptation
Genuinely frightening an audience is a bit like catching lightning in a bottle – or maybe that's thunder.
"I keep saying, 'Just turn all the thunder up. It'll be really scary,'" quips Will Frears, who's directing Misery, the new Broadway stage adaptation of Stephen King's novel (and the subsequent film.) Though Darron L. West's sound design does include a few judiciously placed bolts and jolts, Frears emphasizes that staging a thriller finally relies on basic storytelling tools.
"I keep saying this, and people think I'm crazy, but I think of this as sort of a love story that goes wrong," says Frears of the classic tale of a crazed fan, Annie (Laurie Metcalf), who locks her favorite author, Paul (Bruce Willis), in her house and offers him a few small suggestions for his next book. "The crucial thing to remember is that her actions are perfectly reasonable to her," the director says. "There's nothing we haven't all imagined doing."
Sure, who hasn't dreamt of tying a grown man to a bed and smashing his ankles? But while many of us are familiar with Misery's infamous "hobbling" scene – in which Annie goes medieval on Paul's talus, tibia, and fibula after she catches him trying to escape from his sickbed – set designer David Korins says it's going to play differently onstage than it did on film.
"One of the great reasons to do Misery on Broadway – a lot of people ask me, and it's a simple answer – is that when you're reading the novel you can shut the book, and in the movie they cut away," he explains. "Onstage, we have real people doing this real thing in real space, and you can't look away."
Surrounding this mounting horror, Korins adds, the designers "wanted to create a pressure cooker of a design." So the room in which Paul is confined often appears hyper-realistic, almost clinically so; since it's his entire universe for months, we are made to feel every detail pressing in on him. And when it comes time for the hobbling, notes lighting designer David Weiner, "rather than lighting it spooky-scary, we've opted to do the opposite." The scene begins with Korins's turntable set scrolling through "the kitchen, the hallway, into the bedroom, to reveal Bruce, strapped in. It's a beautifully lit room, bright and sunny. Then Annie walks in."
That clear-eyed backdrop for what Weiner called "almost a surgical procedure" isn't so much about shining a lurid spotlight on a stage atrocity; instead, the logic of the design throughout tracks the erratic mental state of the house's owner.
"If I think about it, it's all driven by her," says Weiner. "When she's out of her mind, we push it," mentioning a few instances of "old-school" shocks and terrors (cue the thunder!). But for the ankle-smashing, he continues, "she's totally calm; she knows exactly what she's going to do."
Korins, too, sees the play's design through the characters' psyches.
"Paul's state of mind stays pretty much the same," he says. "Annie's journey is much, much more complicated. One of the things about doing a piece like this is that the level of abstraction and nuance you can suggest within it is extreme." So throughout the intermissionless play, the lights, Korins notes, "never really go to black; the emotional quality just shifts. We feel as if Annie is sometimes frozen in time; sometimes there's an underwater feeling about her when she feels bogged down."
Indeed, when they're not creating a prison-cell feeling for Paul's room, the design team has pulled out the stops to vary the scenery and "noir it up," as Weiner puts it, citing such precedents as Wait Until Dark, both the stage and film version, and some forced-perspective tricks he noticed in Hitchcock films (look for out-of-proportion shadows worthy of Rebecca).
Now that the show's in previews, Korins says, the play is working "almost like a version of Rocky Horror Picture Show. People kind of cheer along, rooting for Annie and Paul."
But are they scared? If they're anything like director Frears, probably so.
"I'm a coward; I don't like scary things," he says. Besides, what moved him about the original film –adapted, as is the stage play, by William Goldman – was its "astonishing mix of humanism and horror. You get caught up in the story of these people and their emotional lives. To say that all we're doing is to scare people takes away from what's really interesting."
He pauses, then concedes: "But yes, we're also trying to scare people."
Follow Rob Weinert-Kendt at @RobKendt. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis.