I'm not the best audience for a scary show. At the movies, I cover my eyes during the gory parts. I also find that, for the most part, the real world provides all the grief and terror I know how to handle. Nonetheless -- despite some moments spent cringing in my seat -- I found Paragon Theatre's Misery entertaining.
I never saw the film of Stephen King's novel, but it's impossible not to know at least part of the story. Paul Sheldon, a successful writer of romance novels, is driving to the Colorado cabin where he likes to write when he skids off the road. He wakes to find that his legs are mangled and that he's been kidnapped by a crazed woman, Annie Wilkes, who claims to be his number-one fan. Annie is controlling, needy and manipulative, giving him his painkillers or withholding them at will. When she purchases the latest installment in his series of novels (in a not-very-credible plot development, she's waited for the paperback) and discovers that his heroine, Misery, has died in childbirth, she's incensed. Paul will write a new novel, Annie decrees, in which Misery returns to life.
It's easy to see where King got the idea for this plot. He must have spent years contemplating the price of fame, the relationship of author to readers and the odd symbiosis between the two. Devoted fans do, in a sense, force a writer to keep writing -- though rarely by threatening execution for insufficient output -- and their expectations help shape the work. All King had to do was imagine this relationship corrupted and carried to the extreme.
Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive
Presented by Paragon Theatre through October 29, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.com
All the standard horror-story elements are here -- the isolated cabin in which the protagonist is cut off from everyone but his tormenter, pain, loss of control. The early scenes, in which Paul discovers the depth both of Annie's madness and of his own predicament, are a little static and predictable. Or perhaps it's just that I knew this part of the plot so well from movie trailers and television jokes. What gives it its life, however, is the character of Annie -- self-pitying, self-involved, both moralistic (she hates bad language) and sadistic, and a narcissist to the core. There's also something authentically blood-chilling in the idea of an evil nurse, of finding harshness and cruelty where we most expect comfort and warmth.
I admit, though, I was pretty unhappy watching Annie torment Paul. I hate seeing images of people in pain -- even in those comedies where we're supposed to find fingers caught in doors and penises in zippers hilariously funny. And my news- and world-events-hungry mind never quite shuts off. So as Paul screamed and writhed and begged for relief, I remembered a recent New York Times article about the death of a 22-year-old taxi driver in U.S. captivity in Bagram, Afghanistan. His legs, too, had been destroyed, only here the cause was a beating. When he begged for water -- as Paul was doing in front of my eyes -- a soldier handed him a bottle, then punched a hole in it so that the liquid poured over the prisoner. The young man -- known by his interrogators to be innocent -- was hung from the ceiling of his cell and left to die.
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I understand that most theater-goers rarely find themselves tormented with thoughts like this, but I do wonder sometimes whether our national taste for hyper-violent entertainment will persist in an increasingly frightening and chaotic world.
I don't want to imply that Misery is one of those ugly, exploitative splatter shows, however, because it isn't. In horror-show terms, it isn't especially horrific. And things do become pretty entertaining once a recovering Paul begins banging out Annie's requested novel on an ancient typewriter, because the protagonists are more evenly matched here. You can sense King parodying both romance fiction and his own work -- at one point a hand pushes from the soil of a grave just as Carrie's hand did in that novel. And Annie's responses as Paul reads, her crazed veerings between childish delight and petulant rage, are priceless. Oh, yes -- there is one moment just before the end that everyone in the audience had to know was coming.
Misery is very well acted by Emily Paton Davies as Annie and Thomas Borrillo as Paul. David LaFont's ingeniously designed set works, though it requires long walks (or wheelchair rollings) from one side of the stage to the other, as the two characters exit and enter rooms. Abstract sounds alternate with tinkling Chopin in Michael Andrew Doherty's evocative sound design. In all, a well-done production.