When Laurie Metcalf first walks onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre, the set is cloaked in shadows. A faint light illuminates what appears to be a modest bedroom in an rustic home. Bruce Willis lies in bed -- but the famed Hollywood action hero remains still, unconscious, hooked to an I.V.
For fans of "Misery" -- either the 1987 bestselling novel by Stephen King, or the popular 1990 film starring James Caan and Kathy Bates (who won an Academy Award for her performance) -- the prospect of a new Broadway adaptation is titillating. The play, penned by the film's screenwriter, William Goldman, opens Nov. 15.
Metcalf -- a veteran stage actress best known for playing Roseanne Barr's warm wacky sister on the sitcom "Roseanne" -- assumed audiences would grow animated at points, but "I wasn't expecting to get reactions on some of the classic lines from the movie," she says. "Like the first time I say, 'I'm you're No. 1 fan,' I can hear kind of a rustling because it's just . . . just such a memory jolt."
That "No. 1 fan" phrase gets uttered eight times over the course of the play. And audiences do more than just rustle -- they titter, groan, gasp and shout out in shock.
That's the point, of course, with any theatrical thriller. "Audiences like being stuck in a room being scared," says director Will Frears. "I've directed quite a few plays that have some moment of terror, something violent. Making an audience gasp is something I like to do."
Classic thrillers -- plays like "Deathtrap," "Sleuth," "Wait Until Dark" -- once shocked audiences on a regular basis, but in recent decades they've been produced less and less. It seems tougher for a playwright to shock people today what with TV's gory police and hospital procedurals, and films blinged out on special effects. Audiences are savvier now. Perhaps more numb. Which means, for the British-born director, the pressure's on.
"As we say in England, you have to do what it says on the tin," he explains. Brit-to-Yank translation: If a can is labeled "tuna fish," there better darn well be tuna inside. "If you say you're doing 'Misery,' it has to be scary."
The tale centers on Paul Sheldon (Willis), a best-selling author of romance novels, and Annie Wilkes (Metcalf), a resourceful ex-nurse. After nearly dying in a car crash, Paul awakens to find he's been rescued by Annie and brought back to her nearby Colorado home. He's stuck there, thanks to two broken legs and a blizzard that has downed phone lines and blocked roads. Or so she says. He soon discovers she's rather obsessed with the heroine from his books, Misery Chastain -- and when she learns he's killed off Misery in his latest novel, well, Annie . . . um . . . is not pleased.
"Annie is such a theatrical role," says Metcalf. "The mood swings come fast and furious, and that's always fun to tackle."
PAGE TO SCREEN TO STAGE
Each version of "Misery" is slightly different. The book, with its first-person narration, is told entirely from Paul's point-of-view. "It's King's writing," says Frears, "so it's much more overtly horrifying."
The film, directed by Rob Reiner, presents a more sympathetic version of Annie. It's widely considered one of the best translations of King's work to the big screen. And as King told Rolling Stone magazine last year, of all the films adapted from his books, this rates as one of his favorites.
Frears hopes the play falls somewhere in between, and that the "joy of the macabre," so present in both novel and film, comes across onstage. "There's a lightness all three share. A glee."
They also all share that famed scene of Annie making sure Paul can't escape. (If you don't know, you'll get no spoilers from us.)
For Metcalf, the challenge is to get beyond audience expectations of Annie. "Those familiar with the character may consider her a lunatic," she says. "My challenge is to find a little bit of heart."
It's also a chance to work with Willis, who's making his Broadway debut. In 1984, the two were both struggling actors in New York, Willis starring Off-Broadway in Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love," Metcalf in "Balm in Gilead." But they never met. Now they're both Emmy winners, and "All this time later, here we are sharing this stage," she says.
"I like to work with people who are so focused and committed to the work it takes to mount a monster show like this -- and he;s been wonderful. We depend on each other out there. I couldn't ask for a better scene partner."
There's no word yet on what horrormeister King thinks of this new incarnation. Metcalf doesn't like to think about that -- it makes her too nervous. He's expected to attend opening night.
"The only note I've gotten from him was to make sure Bruce screams really, really loud," says Frears. That request came to the director shortly after Willis was cast, and Frears is happy to comply.
"I thought, 'Fair enough.' When he screams, scream loud."
KING'S OWN 'MISERY'
It wasn't quite the same, but it was close -- that summer day in 1999 when Stephen King opened his eyes and looked around, disoriented and badly injured. He was lying on the ground, with a hazy memory of a van veering off a country road and striking him as he'd walked along the shoulder.
The similarities to "Misery" were eerie -- best-selling author, car accident, broken bones -- but, unlike the hero in that book, King was rushed to a hospital. His slow, painful recovery required months in rehab. Eventually, he returned to his Maine home, under the care of his wife and a rotation of nurses.
"You know, they'd all read 'Misery,' " he said, in a radio interview a year after the accident.
"One of them told me . . . they had all read it, and they had all been called into the office by their superior and told in no uncertain terms -- don't make any 'Misery' jokes."
They restrained themselves. And, lucky for him, life didn't imitate art.
"They were great," he said. -- JOSEPH V. AMODIO