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Water World: “The Shark Is Broken,” reviewed

In The Shark Is Broken, it’s summer, 1974 off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell), Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) kill time as an animatronic shark, nicknamed Bruce, undergoes endless repairs (only to sputter and go belly up in salt water). During long, hot days aboard the 42-foot Orca, the actors bond, bicker, play cards, and come to blows over booze. Dreyfuss throws one of Shaw’s hidden bottles overboard, and Shaw nearly chokes the life out of him. The seasick Dreyfuss vomits frequently. Scheider reads his paper. Shaw drinks and taunts Dreyfuss on being uncultured and out of shape. Every man gets a chance to blow up and messily overshare, as he waits to be released from celluloid limbo.

We get to know the fellows in broad outline. Scheider is the peacemaker but also a boor, forever sharing facts and trivia, hiding an explosive temper. Dreyfuss is the insufferable narcissist who always steers the conversation to him and his career. And Shaw is a snob, a pretentious writer, and alcoholic sadist with major daddy issues. Individually one wouldn’t choose to spend 90 minutes with any of them, but as an odd throuple they generate a fair amount of laughs.

Brightman’s impersonation of Dreyfuss is uncannily good, perfectly pitched snorts and whiny wheedling synchronized with fidgety, schlumpy body language. Neurotic, irreverent and deeply immature, Dreyfuss comes across as the most contemporary of the men, a sarcastic troll who today would be edgelording on X. With a harder job of capturing Scheider’s wry, hesitant machismo, Donnell sounds like he is channeling Alan Alda – I presume he was hired for his gym body, which doesn’t really echo Scheider’s tan physique, though the show finds a way to put it on display in this intermission-less show nonetheless. Ian Shaw steps into his dad’s galoshes with a genetic advantage—doughy scowl and peaty baritone, plus mustache—and pulls it off, leaning into a boozy master thespian shtick that satisfies.

Less so the script, co-written by Shaw and Joseph Nixon. In addition to the non-drama of the three actors waiting and arguing or joking around, there are heavy-handed splashes of irony. Pandering laughs include the guys agreeing that America will never have a worse President than Nixon, or idly speculating about global warming and later considering a future in which all movies will be summer-blockbuster garbage aimed at idiot teenagers. From Shaw’s pessimistic perspective, Jaws is Ground Zero for the decline of Western civilization.

That could have been a fruitful idea to pursue (what is this affair but recycled IP), but The Shark Is Broken isn’t an ambitious drama, just an unusual workplace dramedy with a genealogical twist. The single, floating locale is simulated with tasteful realism in Duncan Henderson’s sets and vivid but unobtrusive background video by Nina Dunn. Despite well-paced direction by Guy Masterson, an hour of Hollywood bitching and gossip is plenty, and the last thirty minutes drag. A more daring piece might break the fourth wall and go meta, with Shaw stepping off the boat and speaking candidly about his father and the strange project of channeling the man who died when he was eight years old. Instead, we never paddle out of the shallows of sitcom pathos.

This is a show with no real throughline, and no real stakes. Yes, Bruce keeps malfunctioning, but that’s an obstacle to the offstage Steven Spielberg, not to the trio of actors who comprise the play. They face no obstacles, and the younger Shaw’s play is completely devoid of antagonists, rising action, even a climax.

But there’s plenty to say about the real Shaw, whose life included rumors of alcoholism and philandering that never gets included here – and who died just a few years after the release of Jaws, and about Dreyfuss’s career which catapulted to the highs of Spielberg’s Close Encounters and a then record-setting win as the youngest Best Actor recipient of his time for The Goodbye Girl the same year, but whose subsequent career declined thanks to a combination of hubris (his own) and antiethnic preferences (the industry’s). Or Spielberg himself, who had everything on the line with Jaws, and ended up becoming the biggest director of all time. This play tells none of those stories; this is a show about the most famous shark of all time, and it has no teeth.