by John Stoltenberg
A man has a remote rustic fishing cabin. There are lot of fish in the water nearby. He’s a rugged, outdoorsy guy and he loves to fish. In a Hemingway novel he would not be a fish out of water. This man has been coming to this cabin since he was seven and his uncle brought him here and taught him how to fish. His uncle also brought women here. A lot of women. The man cannot remember how many. The man does not want to be like that. He has made a vow to himself. He wants to fall in love with one woman. One woman only. A woman whom he can bring to this idyllic mancave of a fishing cabin and with whom he can share the simple joy of trout fishing. That’s what he truly wants. That’s what he believes about himself. That’s who he tells himself he is. Not like his philandering uncle.
If that sounds fishy, like bait before a switch, it is. For The River by Jez Butterworth, now making a splash at Spooky Action Theater, is intriguingly not what it seems. To the Man (a terrific Jeffrey Allin), it is the story of a trout-fishing tryst with his new girlfriend, the singular woman he loves. But Butterworth lets us the audience in on a very different story, a tantalizing tale of the heart that’s as for real as only the surreal can be.
We meet The Man’s new girlfriend, The Woman (the extraordinary Emma Jackson; she’s absolutely transfixing). They’re going to go fishing. In the next scene we meet someone else who is also The Man’s new girlfriend, The Other Woman (a splendid Karen Novack). They have just been fishing. In alternating scenes these two women continue to play a continuous role in the same narrative, which is both perplexing and very cool.
So how many other fish are there in the sea? each woman asks him, in effect. None others, The Man avers. Yet we see with our own eyes that this Man exists in his own narrative as if with one woman; meanwhile two actual women exist in his narrative separately. To themselves, The Woman and The Other Woman are individuated, each drawn to The Man, each deserving of fidelity. They do find out they are not unique in his narrative; he apparently intends for them to know. But are they actually interchangeable to him? Like all trout are alike in the lake?
Director Rebecca Holderness with Assistant Director Jennifer Knight have taken what could easily be staged as a poetic paean to male-pattern myopia and turned it into an utterly fascinating portrayal of perspicacious female points of view. Jackson and Novack establish their characters vividly, subtly revealing they each know better than to fall for this man hook, line, and sinker. The Man is oblivious to their uniqueness, he doesn’t seem to see it at all; meanwhile we in the audience are riveted by it. Which is not to take away from Allin’s nuanced performance as The Man. He comes off sincere not sinister, gracious not guileful. He’s even a man who knows his way around a kitchen. There’s an amazing scene where he cleans and cooks a real fish (fresh caught by The Other Woman) and then serves it sizzling from the stove (to the delicious delight of The Woman). Whatta guy.
In its brief 90 minutes The River becomes a seductive deep dive into the drama of male-female hooking up. Self-delusion and disillusion. Best intentions and betrayal. Imbalance of power. All the everyday heartbreakers flayed and filleted before our eyes. Except The River lures us with lush language. It tickles us with comic riffs. It teases us with theatrical trickery. It stuns us with poignance. And it catches us with a mystery that won’t stop reeling in meaning.