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“Misery” at Curtain Call Theater is a tame version of film and book

Back to Front - Amanda Dorman, Kevin Gardner in "Misery"
David Quinones, Jr.
Courtesy of Curtain Call Theater
Back to Front - Amanda Dorman, Kevin Gardner in "Misery"

A mysterious truth about theater is that despite terrific acting, smart direction and solid technical support, a play - even one with a well-known title - isn’t always as satisfying as is it’s source material.

That’s the case with “Misery,” a stage adaptation of the Stephen King thriller that is perhaps best known

for the brilliant film adaptation by William Goldman. It continues at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham until January 29.

Another oddity in the show is it’s compelling without being dramatic. In a film, an unusual visual angle combined with lighting and other devices can add tension to a story. In a live stage production you need more to engage the audience. That usually happens through dialogue which offers insight while creating dramatic tension.

Goldman is one of the finest ever page-to-screen adapters. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Princess Diaries” are but a few of his credits. However, in adapting “Misery” to the stage he tries to simply replicate the film. This work is merely a memory play for those who love the film.

To be fully satisfying, the play needs more invention and originality in telling the story. It would be richer if Goldman incorporated parts of the book that he left out of the film. For instance, filling out Annie’s background that includes murdering a neighboring family and her own father, as well as people in the hospital where she worked. It would add dangerous depth to a woman who now seems to be driven only by obsession.

It certainly would play to the strength of theater - which is probing the workings of a mind - be it a mentally unstable person or a writer addicted to his craft.

In this adaptation, information is doled out in many short scenes which, instead of building suspense, induces monotony. It takes almost an hour to get to the thrilling and dangerous portion of the story. This is made worse as a reasonable guess is the vast majority of the audience is intimately familiar with the tale.

Thankfully, the spine of the suspenseful story still works. You cannot help but be worried about the fate of Paul Sheldon, a very successful romance writer who has written a series of books featuring the character Misery Chastain.

One snowy night Paul drunkenly drives off the road, crashing his car. He has broken his legs and battered the rest of his body. He wakes up four days later in the rural home of Annie Wilkes.

Annie, who pulled him from the car and carried Paul to her home is a former nurse and attends to his wounds. She is also the writer’s “Number One” fan, which she cannot stop telling him. Because of the storm roads are closed, phone lines are down forcing the pair to be isolated, with him depending on Annie for care.

Amanda Dorman is wonderful in portraying this odd woman who is devoted to the writer and how her life is dependent on Misery’s well-being. She initially creates a kind, simple woman who dotes on her hero. However, soon her kindness takes on a threatening edge when she is annoyed. When she learns that in a soon to be released book Paul kills off Misery, she’s willing to do anything to bring her back to life.

Kevin Gardner’s approach to Paul is, rather than play him in a constant state of terror, to show him as a man who is aware of the danger of his situation and in fear for his life. However, he refuses to panic or plead. Instead, he manipulates his captor. His giving Paul a sturdy, subtle intelligence is a great complement to Annie’s naiveté, which Dorman plays so well.

Cindy Bates directs both actors so that the power which tends to shift back and forth is always legitimate. She is also able to keep the story’s static nature moving towards its inevitable conclusion. Even the contrived visits played by the local sheriff (nicely played by Grant Miller) add to Annie’s paranoia.

Throughout, the tension is ratcheted up by the increasing danger to Paul as several moments of cringe worthy violence heighten the horror of the situation. This production does not shy away from the physical torture, but it is not nearly as brutal as it is offered in the other mediums.

“Misery” is, at its heart, a psychological thriller. It’s ironic that its success is dependent on one or two visually terrifying moments. Horror within the mind is more terrifying than modified violence on stage. This basically explains what is lacking from Goldman’s meek adaptation.

“Misery” at Curtain Call Theater, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham. Thursdays to Sundays. Tickets and schedule information 518-877-7529

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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