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August 22, 2023
When Yesterday's Movie Becomes Today's News
The Shark is Broken
Photo by Matthew Murphy

It’s been almost 50 years since the release of the movie Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, it was based on the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley and starred Roy Scheider as a police chief who, with a marine biologist (played by Richard Dreyfuss) and a professional shark hunter (Robert Shaw,) hunts a man-eating great white shark that is attacking beachgoers at a summer resort town.

Filmed on location in Martha’s Vineyard, the film was beset by complications and postponements. The movie used four mechanical sharks, but there were malfunctions which delayed the filming schedule by weeks. This provided more opportunity for the three stars to interact. They played cards and other games to pass the time, but often Shaw and Dreyfuss quarreled and squabbled.

“The Shark is Broken,” a new play co-written by Shaw’s son, Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, provides a backstory to the film. The show works better for those of us familiar with the movie and makes us feel like we have been given a glimpse behind the film. We also have the benefit of hindsight knowing how popular the film became. When Shaw, a writer himself as well as a Shakespearean actor, scoffs at the subject of the film and asks, “what will come next -dinosaurs?” we laugh, as if we’ve been let in on the joke.

Ian Shaw portrays his father in the play with a strong accent which he eventually tapers down. Because of his relationship, it is easy to accept everything in the script as true. Quite frankly, Shaw isn’t particularly kind in his depiction of his father who comes across as a bully and an alcoholic. Nor is he kinder to Dreyfuss, the only one of the three actors still alive. Dreyfuss is insecure and whining and suffers a dramatic anxiety attack. Scheider, well-played by Colin Donnell, is the conciliator of the trio, often negotiating between the two. In fact, when the extended filming is finally over, Shaw thanks him for stopping them from killing each other. We don’t learn much about him except that he avidly read the newspapers and was a sunbather.

The play works best if you are familiar with the movie and the actors. The three performers are fine. Shaw looks remarkably like his father. He’s bombastic, sarcastic and forceful. The always funny talented Alex Brightman plays Dreyfuss. He appears a bit portly and disheveled and manages to convey Dreyfuss’s mannerisms, nuances and insecurities. Brightman’s talent includes big broad comedy and he includes it in his portrayal of Dreyfuss. Donnell doesn't have much to work with except one scene when he thinks he’s off, strips down to his bathing suit and prepares to bask in the sun.

The story opens with Dreyfuss complaining about Steven (Speilberg) making them film on location on a boat in the water. All of the action in the play occurs on one set, the interior of the Orca, a boat designed by Duncan Henderson. The challenge for director Guy Masterson is conveying his actors’ personalities within the confined space of the boat.

The humor in the play comes from the audience's historical perspective. When Shaw mocks movies like “Love Story” and predicts that no one will remember them, the audience laughs since we know otherwise.

I’m not sure that “The Shark Is Broken” will entertain a viewer who doesn’t know the movie and the time period. It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie and, quite frankly, I wasn’t especially looking forward to seeing the play but I must admit I enjoyed it more than I expected to. “The Shark is Broken” gives us a look behind the scenes of an iconic film and sometimes the background is even more interesting than the film itself. The movie may be almost fifty years old but recently a woman on a Queens beach was attacked by a shark. Suddenly the movie feels very current.

John Golden Theatre
252 W 45TH ST
New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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