Review: Does ‘The Shark Is Broken’ Have Much Bite on Broadway?

It's 1974 and Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw are waiting for the animatronic shark to be fixed as they film 'Jaws.' The actors are skilled and the punch lines land, but despite the visual treats the show drags.

Alex Brightman, Ian Shaw, and Colin Donnell in The Shark Is Broken. Matthew Murphy

The Shark Is Broken | 1hr 35mins. No intermission. | Golden Theatre | 252 W. 45th Street | 212-239-6200

At the quasi-climax of The Shark Is Broken (quasi because the play doesn’t have climaxes so much as transitions between scenes), Robert Shaw is asked what he thinks Jaws is really about. “It’s really about a shark!” the prickly Englishman barks. “Don’t read any more into it. Do you really think people are going to be talking about this in 50 years?” In the audience, eyes roll, smirks curl; Spielberg’s shocker about a big fish and three men in a boat will never die.

Need I add that Jaws will probably be admired for another 50 years, whereas The Shark Is Broken sinks from memory not long after you exit the Golden Theatre? As you sit watching three skilled and likable actors do celebrity impressions, there are decent punch lines, visual treats, even a poignant moment or two of harpooned masculinity. But this behind-the-scenes buddy drama—which swam from the Edinburgh Fringe to London’s West End and finally washed up on Broadway—is a handful of chum in a very big sea. 

Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw, and Alex Brightman in The Shark Is Broken. Matthew Murphy

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.

Ian Shaw and Alex Brightman in The Shark Is Broken. Matthew Murphy

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 is engaging (and strips down to his briefs to show off a sinewy physique) but struggles in the least defined role. 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. 

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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. 

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Review: Does ‘The Shark Is Broken’ Have Much Bite on Broadway?