By Ciara LaVelle
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Horror meister Stephen King certainly knows a thing or two about the vicissitudes of fame. Like many a writer before him, King draws on personal experience for his short novel Misery, a grim fairy tale about a famous writer held captive by his "number one fan," now in production at GableStage. Adapted for the stage by Simon Moore, the 1992 play is directed with feverish intensity by Joseph Adler and features not-to-be-missed performances by the crackerjack cast of two, Stephen G. Anthony and Lisa Morgan. Although the script fails to fully exploit King's tale, the production is a Grand Guignol of horror and humor that delivers an electric jolt of melodrama.
The tale begins simply, even limply, with novelist Paul Sheldon at a black-tie event accepting an award. Paul is fatuous, glib, and smug about the success of his romantic potboilers and their eternally imperiled heroine, Misery. But after a stint in snowbound Colorado, where he created the final installment of the Misery series, Paul gets drunk, crashes his car, and almost dies. (Coincidentally King himself was nearly killed in 1999 after being hit by a van.) Paul is pulled from the snow by passerby Annie Wilkes, a nurse and a huge fan of his work. When Paul comes to, he finds himself in Annie's dark, solitary farmhouse with his broken legs in splints. Annie shelters Paul from the ravages of a snowstorm, plying him with painkillers and tending to his every need.
At first her heroics appear to be a godsend. But Paul soon realizes the painkillers are addictive, that Annie is more an obsessed jailer than a savior, and his rescue is only the beginning of a strange dream that warps into a nightmarish captivity. His adoring fan turns nasty when she discovers the Misery series is to end. She demands he write more. Forced to comply or die, bedridden Paul becomes a sort of Scheherezade, churning out one cliffhanger chapter every day, to keep his captor at bay. But Annie, who loves Paul's purple prose, demands internal logic. Any old plot twist won't do -- the new chapters must be logically consistent with previous events. Thus Paul's crazed nemesis becomes his editor, forcing him beyond glibness to draw on real inspiration.
Many have speculated about the real meaning behind King's logic. Certainly he is playing with the strange writer/reader relationship and exploiting the creepier aspects of fame. But the obsessive fan forms only part of the equation. More than a few wags have chuckled in commiseration at the thought of a psychopath as one's editor. And Annie can be viewed as the embodiment of King's inner critic, a relentless taskmaster who forces Paul (King's obvious stand-in) to write as if his life depended on it -- as it does in this tale. He's forced to make up a story to stay alive, literally creating life for himself from day to day. Thus Misery is also an ironic tale about authenticity; Annie terms Paul as someone "who tells lies for a living," yet she herself maintains a fabric of deceit to mask her own dark secrets.
Many King fans will know that Misery was adapted (and toned down) as a motion picture starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. This stage version cleaves closely to the book; there's a gruesome assault with an ax in this story (not with a hammer as in the movie), a scene of explicit mutilation that some will find hard to take. This is all lurid melodrama, of course, and much only remotely plausible, but the narrative's lack of logic is part of the fun. King has written a modern fable, a riff on the classic wicked-witch-in-the-woods motif; the naive Paul stumbles into the dark gingerbread kingdom that lurks beyond the familiar world of logic and daylight.
Director Adler, who ably demonstrated his flare for myth disguised as modernism with the production of Edward Albee's plays, skillfully exploits this queasy, fairy-tale atmosphere. Consistent with the qualities of a dream, his staging is realistic and believable yet studded with sudden shocks and inconsistencies. Some short scenes fade in and out in rapid succession, mirroring Paul's lapses in and out of consciousness. At other times, scenes suddenly snap on, with Annie appearing out of the dark like a specter. And there are moments when audience laughter turns to shocking gasps. The show's palpable menace is magnified by Lyle Baskin's hulking haunted house of a set, with its ghastly wallpaper; and John D. Hall's shadowy lighting.
But in a two-person show, clearly the concentration is on performance, and Misery is no exception. Stephen G. Anthony anchors the show and provides a thoroughly credible, watchable performance as the wounded hero -- no small feat considering he's onstage the entire show. But Lisa Morgan's chilling portrayal of Annie is completely captivating. From her first moment in the spotlight -- seated at a small bare table, biting her nails, staring off into space -- Morgan is mesmerizing as the sad, troubled fan who gradually reveals her dangerously psychotic nature.
In spite of its strengths, Moore's adaptation should have made a better play. Paul's personality is never fully developed -- he begins and ends as a slick, senseless man. His external problem -- escaping from Annie -- is formidable, but despite Anthony's vivid portrayal, Paul's lack of internal conflict renders him fundamentally uninteresting. He is twice divorced and without friends, and Annie declares his entire life a failure, except for his Misery books. Yet Moore doesn't explore Paul's character or show if this crisis changes him. Moore also mirrors too closely the structure of the original novel, including brief scenes, some of which contain only one word. This results in busy, scattershot sequences that could have been avoided altogether with more carefully crafted scene work.
Another issue is clarity, particularly from Morgan. The British-born actress understands that American speech is less about pronunciation and more about placement (the American accent derives from the back of the soft palate, while Brits speak from behind the front teeth). Although Morgan's American twang is believable, her articulation is muddled, a problem I suspect will resolve itself as the run continues. Michael J. Hoffman's sound effects add layers of realism, but his interstitial musical compositions -- mostly comprising portentous riffs akin to movie soundtracks -- fall considerably short of his usually high standards.