There is something poignant and daring about Hugh Jackman as he triumphantly challenges both his action-movie and flamboyant-Broadway fan bases in "The River."
This is Jez Butterworth's taut 85-minute mystery about a sensitive he-man who brings a woman -- or is it women? -- to his isolated cabin to fly fish on the one moonless night a year when the wild sea trout are running. The three-character drama is emotionally exposed and intensely inconclusive -- a poetic, lusty puzzle that rivets one moment, exasperates another, and is destined to keep theatergoers arguing about its meaning all the way home, if not all season.
It is delicately and passionately staged by Ian Rickson on a narrow runway that keeps the audience close enough to flinch as Jackman, called The Man in the program, guts a big fish and lavishes it with olive oil. The plot is a minefield of spoilers, twists and curves that are best left undisclosed here.
Suffice it to say that Jackman, with his feral-sweet face and biceps that appear to have their own biceps, makes us care about a seeker with romantic, mystical ideas about luring and hooking beautiful creatures and a man/nature bond that sets the bar awfully high for his relationships with women.
It is possible to bristle that Butterworth ("Jerusalem") thinks that women are interchangeable. It may be just as possible that, for all the quoting of Ted Hughes and ballad singing to W.B. Yeats, the British playwright could just be saying that dating gets disillusioning when you have to keep repeating the same stories to make women love you.
But let's not linger on this. On the very positive side, Butterfield creates women who, besides being gorgeous, are strong, independent and opinionated. Cush Jumbo, identified as The Woman, plays the quirky one who first claims she doesn't want to go fishing because the Virginia Woolf book she's reading "is just getting good." Laura Donnelly, the only remaining actor from the play's 2012 premiere in a 90-seat theater at London's Royal Court, actually plays ridiculously stoned without being ridiculous as the seemingly more conventional Other Woman. Not incidentally, much is made about the fish she brings home being female.
But truth is as slippery here as the first trout The Man almost caught in a life-changing moment when he was 7 (and presumably called The Boy). "Like catching a lightning bolt," is one of many ways he describes the thrill.
But what is real? Is anything ever not a lie? Butterfield writes profoundly about the feeling of love. His observations -- the water is "gin clear" -- transcend nature clichés and nature's cruelty lurks outside as well as in. Also, the theater configuration means we watch Jackman's butt at times when we would rather see his face. Or maybe that's just me.
WHAT "The River"
WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, Manhattan
INFO $95-$175; 212-239-6200; theriveronbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Mysterious drama, powerful Jackman