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review

Ian Shaw, left, Demetri Goritsas and Liam Murray Scott star in The Shark is Broken.Helen Maybanks/Handout

  • Title: The Shark is Broken
  • Written by: Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon
  • Director: Guy Masterson
  • Actors: Demetri Goritsas, Liam Murray Scott, Ian Shaw
  • Company: David Mirvish presents a Sonia Friedman and Scott Landis production
  • Venue: Royal Alexandra Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Nov. 6, 2022

It’s incredibly hard for a theatre fan to look at the current Mirvish Productions season, heavy on imported British productions, and not lament that Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt is no longer among them on the Toronto commercial producer’s playbill.

That darn pandemic!

What may be the final play from one of the greatest living British playwrights had its North American premiere in New York on Broadway this week, rather than in Toronto last winter as originally planned, due to Omicron and the Ontario government’s impossible-to-predict approach to restrictions on live performance.

Instead, in the direct-from-London and from Sonia Friedman Productions department, Mirvish audiences are now getting The Shark is Broken – a look at the behind-the-scenes squabbling of the stars of the 1975 thriller Jaws.

This play is, alas, not by one of the greatest living British playwrights (it’s co-written by two little-known ones), and the fact that the three-hander is, alas again, not great itself is especially clear with something major like Leopoldstadt – to quote fictional Jaws oceanographer Hooper – “in the foreground to give it some scale.”

The Shark is Broken will mainly have appeal for uber-fans of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster who upon hearing the above line will respond, with gusto, as chief Brody does, “Foreground, my ass!”

Designer Duncan Henderson has built a cut-open replica of the Orca shark-hunting vessel from the film, and set it adrift on a rolling sea that fills the entire Royal Alexandra stage thanks to video projections by Nina Dunn.

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In its halved hull, we first meet American actors Roy Scheider, who played chief Brody, and is here played by Demetri Goritsas, and Richard Dreyfuss, who played Hooper, and is here played by Liam Murray Scott.

In their very first scene, full of unseaworthy exposition, the show immediately starts to take on water.

Goritsas comes across more as a cross between Bob Saget and Jerry Seinfeld than a Scheider, but the real disappointment is Scott, who is unable to capture the young Dreyfuss’s energy, his Jewishness or his California vibe in a way palatable to anyone on this side of the Atlantic. The writing, leaning heavily into cliché on all these fronts, does not help.

Thankfully, soon enough, on comes Ian Shaw, co-writer of the play with Joseph Nixon, to keep it from sinking; he’s playing British actor Robert Shaw, who played the eccentric shark hunter Quint in Jaws.

You can put Google down: The two Shaws are, indeed, related. Ian is the son of Robert. The resemblance is uncanny and the mannerisms and voice are spot on. But the whole thing rises above mere impersonation due to, well, genetics.

Jaws-inspired stage play is something of a Shaw-shark redemption

Shaw is much more deeply drawn than the other men in the play – and there is plenty of genuine insight into his conflicted character, his unusual career as novelist and actor, and his important contribution to the film’s most-famous monologues.

The overall conceit of The Shark is Broken – based on the real and well-documented on-set dysfunction and shark malfunctions – is that these three actors had basically the same dynamic as the characters they played did in Jaws.

Ian Shaw, co-writer of the play with Joseph Nixon, plays his father, actor Robert Shaw.Helen Maybanks/Handout

The stage-and-screen veteran Shaw and up-and-comer Dreyfuss clashed due to their big personalities, the former’s drinking and the latter’s use of cocaine not helping, and Scheider was the buffer between them.

In the movie, however, Quint and Hooper are on a mission together, while Shaw and Dreyfuss are only making a movie here – which we already know will be a hit. Listening to these fictionalized versions of the actors take turns talking about their life and work in between takes and repairs is a little too much like the real hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of a film set.

There must be an audience for such Jaws trivia – or some producer’s algorithm thinks there is currently one in the theatre-going demographic, anyway. Bruce, a musical about the troubled shooting of the film, had a run Seattle earlier this year (directed by Stratford Festival’s Donna Feore) and is aimed at Broadway.

If you’re not in that particular audience, however, you might find yourself checking your watch and double-checking the program to make sure this plotless comedy that only provokes a few scattered laughs is indeed just 90 minutes without an intermission. (Guilty.)

I only truly connected with the show when Robert Shaw talked about how he wished his father had lived longer, so he might have help him change his alcoholic ways. This is quite poignant – knowing that this is really Ian Shaw speaking as the alcoholic father he himself lost at eight years old.

As performance art, at least, The Shark is Broken is intermittently shipshape.

Ian Shaw, right, and his dad, Robert Shaw.Handout