‘Jaws’ unhinged

Ian Shaw brings his father’s film to life on stage in “The Shark is Broken.”


If, like me, you think that “Jaws” is the greatest film ever made, you may want to get down to New York City to see a new play based on the making of that Steven Spielberg masterpiece.

“The Shark is Broken,” co-written and co-starring Ian Shaw, son of the late great actor Robert Shaw, has hit Broadway after a critically acclaimed run on London’s West End and an Olivier Award nomination.

Set aboard a replica of the Orca — complete with a yellow barrel salvaged from the movie — the three co-stars of the film (Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, and Roy Scheider) act out in ways that emulate their cinematic characters leading to a good dose of comedy. There’s pathos as well as humor and lots of fun references to both the movie and its legend.

As the title implies, the action of the comedy/drama is predicated by the film’s famous technical difficulties, (ie – the titular star’s uncooperative attitude). The resulting delays apparently led to lots of downtime for the three principal actors who, in the play at least, fill the hours with bickering, drinking, and kvetching about their participation in a movie that they predict will make nary a ripple in film history. A lot of the humor derives from the actors’ ignorance of the film’s imminent success of the movie and its young director Steven Spielberg and the impact it will have on Hollywood’s future. The 1975 film precipitated an entire uber-popular genre — the blockbuster action/adventure film.

While the three-character play has not exactly garnered rave reviews from New York critics, I can attest that anyone with an interest in the film or with a connection with Martha’s Vineyard is bound to find something to love, while even a casual fan of Jaws will enjoy the play for the acting, directing and script alone.

Reason one to see the show: the three co-stars. Ian Shaw, a Robert Shaw doppelganger, does a pitch-perfect portrayal of his legendary father who apparently found his role as shark bait a career step down for the classically trained and much lauded British actor. Alex Brightman as Hooper all but steals the show with his spot-on channeling of Richard Dreyfuss as a newcomer striver with all of his neurotic energy and bravado. “The Shark is Broken” plays around with these two antagonists’ relationship mirroring their film counterparts, with Shaw asserting his authority and making fun of Dreyfuss’ thin-skinned posturing. As the peacekeeper, Colin Donnell as Scheider, takes a backseat to the two large personalities he’s refereeing, but holds his own as well as his counterpart did in the film.

Reason two: The story. While one of the unique (and positive, in my opinion) things about “Jaws” the film was that, unlike contemporary action movies, the protagonists didn’t have the prerequisite backstories. If “Jaws” was made today, Hooper would have issues with his father who wanted him to pursue a professional career; Brody would be suffering from guilt for not saving the life of his former partner on the big city police force, and Quint would be bent on avenging the death by shark of his late wife — or something like that. Since “The Shark is Broken” is based on reality, we do get the backstories. Shaw’s demons are in evidence as he drowns himself in drink throughout the entire 90-minute production and all three characters have daddy issues of some sort or other that help explain their personalities, as well as their relationships to each other. This makes the show much more than a simple comedy or historically based play.

Reason three (and not the least of the incentives for Islanders): Martha’s Vineyard references. Within the first 15 minutes Scheider is giving his castmates directions that include the Vineyard Haven/Edgartown Road and the Edgartown Road/West Tisbury Road. Granted, Shaw and Dreyfuss could care less about this boring bit of geographical minutia, but Islanders’ ears will prick up at this local reference. During the course of the play, Shaw describes the locals in what are not necessarily the most flattering of terms. When I mentioned this to Ian Shaw while greeting him as a Vineyarder at the backdoor after the show, he apologized saying, “My father had a wicked side to his humor.”

If “Jaws” can be thought of as the predecessor to the slew of blockbuster action films that followed in its wake, it was also among the first of another genre — the bromance (a “bromage à trois” in this case) and “The Shark is Broken” similarly throws three disparate characters together and presents them as eventually working out their differences to achieve a common goal — getting this problematic movie made so that they can all move on to bigger and better (or so they thought) things.

However, in “The Shark is Broken” we get not only a good sense of the actor’s dueling personalities, we’re also offered a glimpse of their turbulent upbringings and their differing career journeys. The famously alcoholic Shaw, like Quint, is seen as aggressively condescending — albeit with a great sense of humor. Dreyfuss, in trying to assert himself, often comes off as buffoonish, and Scheider calmly “rides the waves,” waiting for filming to resume.

At the heart of the play is Robert Shaw’s preparation for his famous “Indianapolis” monologue (which, as I learned during the show, he helped to write). When Ian, as Robert Shaw, finally nails the speech at the end of the play, the moment is as equally terrifying and moving as when the playwright/actor’s acclaimed father delivers it in the movie.

See this play if you can. It’s an adventure you won’t regret.

“The Shark is Broken” is currently running on Broadway at the Golden Theater through Nov. 19. Ticket prices range from $59 to $99. Find out more and purchase tickets at thesharkisbroken.com.