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‘Misery’ review: Bruce Willis, Laurie Metcalf shine

Bruce Willis stars as a badly injured novelist

Bruce Willis stars as a badly injured novelist in Stephen King's "Misery" at the Broadhurst Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Misery”

WHERE Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St.

INFO $69-$165; 212-239-6200; miserybroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Scary old-time theatrical fun with Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf

The sound of delicate strings at the opening of “Misery” could be as comforting as a cozy farmhouse in a blizzard. At the same time, it is unnerving — a creepy lure into a place of suspicion and suspense.

From those first moments, it is clear that the people behind Broadway’s adaptation of Stephen King’s popular thriller and the hit 1990 movie know exactly what they are doing. They know that the bulk of their audience — anyone who didn’t just come to see the very good Bruce Willis — is wise to the plot turns and blunt-force terrors in their modern-gothic junk-food entertainment.

Adapter William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay) and director Will Frears surely anticipate the dread and the affectionate laughter that ripple through the theater the first — and the second, and the third — time that retired nurse Annie Wilkes says, “I’m your biggest fan,” to Paul Sheldon, the badly injured best-selling novelist in her guest room. The challenge, which this production grabs with justifiably delighted gusto, is to get someone who knows the story anxious all over again. And that they do.

The box-office catnip is Willis, totally convincing in his first play since his early off-Broadway days in the ’80s. For more than half of the 90-minute thrill ride, Paul is mostly a head, immobilized with broken legs, his face stitched together like Frankenstein’s creature. Eventually, Willis gets to flex a few of his action-hero muscles. And, yes, he does his own stunts.

But the wow factor, the precision instrument that keeps propelling the story into psychologically unexpected corners, is Laurie Metcalf. She plays Annie, a character indelibly created on screen by Kathy Bates — now different, seemingly softer, but just as seductively unknowable. The woman is both savior and crazed stalker of the literary star she rescued from a car accident in the snow. With the devotion of a lover and the strength of a lady farmer, she has even more layers inside than the cuddly ones piled on by ace costume designer Ann Roth.

The isolated farmhouse, designed on a turntable by David Korins, ominously indicates the passing of months through melting snow. Outside it’s often a dark and stormy night, producing the kind of expertly done, old-time theatrical thriller with little more in its psycho head than stylish, scary fun.

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