William Toti from New York, New York
HILARIOUS PLAY ABOUT THE BEST MOVIE MONOLOGUE EVER WRITTEN
Spoiler alerts below.
I first saw “Jaws” in 1975 as a plebe at Annapolis, having no understanding of how, decades later, I would become intertwined with the story of the USS Indianapolis.
And of course I didn’t understand at the time that Quint’s Indianapolis speech in “Jaws” would arguably become the greatest movie monologue of all time. Nor did I know that it was mostly written by the actor who played Quint, Robert Shaw. Nor did I understand that the event portrayed in that narrative was (mostly) true.
Of course, the Indianapolis speech was not part of Peter Benchley’s original “Jaws” story. We often say, “the book was better than the movie,” but in this case it’s not true. In fact, the movie departs in many important ways from the book, including the Indianapolis plot point, which gives both motivation and purpose to Quint’s trajectory. Without it, he might as well be chasing a white whale. It’s a critical addition to the theme, and Shaw’s treatment of it is nearly perfect.
The Broadway play, “The Shark is Broken,” was co-written by and stars Robert Shaw’s son, Ian Shaw, and involves, in part, his dad’s drafting of that famous monologue. Make no mistake—this play is a primarily a comedy, one that’s both funnier than I expected, and more poignant than I anticipated. More on that later.
The play is set in the boat where the famous Indianapolis scene was shot, and it involves just three characters: Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, and Roy Scheider. Ian plays his dad, with Alex Brightman doing a neuroses-perfect rendition of Dreyfuss, and Colin Donnell playing Scheider with just the right amount of cigarette-dangling camp.
And the result is visually jarring. Ian Shaw isn’t merely a mirror image of his dad in Quint’s persona, he channels him.
My own experience from spending years on a “boat” is that when you cram 130 guys into a submarine, we have only two means of entertainment: movies, and jerking each other’s chains. Apparently, Robert Shaw was part submariner because he excels at the latter, meticulously and gleefully picking at each of Dreyfuss’ many trigger points, in real life and throughout this play.
And there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Shooting a movie can best be described for the actors as enduring long periods of intense boredom while setting up for the next shot— in film language this is referred to as “reset”— followed by short moments of actual filming before it’s time to reset again. (Jimmy Cagney once famously said that he was being paid to wait around during reset, and that he actually did the acting for free.)
“The Shark is Broken” takes place during a days-long period of reset, waiting for the mechanical shark to get repaired so that filming can continue. Boredom for the actors creates hilarity for the audience. Ian Shaw’s narrative is drawn from several sources, to include Robert Shaw’s drinking diary (no kidding). And at times it borders on the absurd.
There were times when I felt I was watching Pirandello (“Three Characters in search of a Shark?”). At other times the nihilistic bantering reminded me of—dare I say it—Rosencrantz? (Stay with me— the three “Broken” characters banter oblivious of the shark-repairing activities going on without them, just as Guildenstern ponders the unseen happenings of Hamlet.)
An irony of this play is that Harold Pinter’s name is invoked with reverence frequently throughout, yet the elder Shaw wrote at least one line for “Jaws” that in my estimation is better than anything Pinter ever wrote. (“You know the thing about a shark? He’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes….”) If only Shaw’s alcoholism had not so hindered his creativity, who knows what he might have produced?
One of the more cerebral moments of the play occurs when the three characters are trying to glean meaning from the “Jaws” storyline. Brightman’s Dreyfuss opines that the shark represents the subconscious, imponderable terrors that we all face. Donnell’s Scheider suggests that the movie is about the shared responsibility of protecting people from unseen threats, even at great risk to oneself. These are both believable theses, right to the point where Shaw’s Quint proclaims with the swipe of his arm, “It’s about a shark!”
The comedy pendulum largely swings between Shaw’s acerbic chiding and Brightman’s flailing verbal and visual antics, which nearly steal the show. Against that backdrop, Donnell effectively plays the straight man, as someone must, positioning the action against New York Times renderings of the Nixon resignation and other events that were happening concurrent with the filming of the movie.
One of the most gripping moments is when character Robert Shaw reveals the true story of his own father’s suicide, which causes many of his personal flaws to become suddenly fathomable. It’s this interplay between the three characters that generates just the right balance of comedy, anxiety, and gravitas, making the ninety minute runtime flow by all too quickly.
Quint’s speech may be an inflection point in film history, but it’s not without historical flaw. The Top Secret portion of the mission actually ended when the Indy dropped the bomb off at Tinian, and most of the rest of the historical defect is contained in the speech’s final line: “So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.” The sinking actually occurred in July not June, and while sharks took many of Indy’s crew, they almost certainly did not take “the rest.” But sharks did take far too many of their shipmates, so these errors become quibbles that may continue to perpetuate some of the myths surrounding the ship and its historical record, but never actually seemed to bother any of the survivors. The important point is that the bones of Quint’s speech are true.
If forced to find fault in the play, the only criticism I can conjure involves Scheider’s sunbathing scene, which seems to have been written into the script only as a means of exhibiting Donnell’s male model physique. Not the kind of thing that moves the storyline forward, but it’s an exceedingly minor point.
But then there is that final scene of the play, when Ian Shaw recreates his father’s famous monologue. Although I have that speech nearly memorized, it was like hearing it again for the first time. The theater got eerily silent, and it was a magical rendering— the audience hanging on every one of Quint’s words. It could not have been done better, or with more reverence.
In all, from my point of view, “The Shark is Broken” was nearly perfect, and is a must-see. Thank God there is a play on Broadway that isn’t merely either simple-minded tourist schlock or yet another attempt to stretch the boundaries of cynicism.
After the play, a few of us from the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization were invited backstage to meet the cast, and they could not have been more gracious. Ian Shaw seemed genuinely affected by meeting Jane Gwinn Goodall, the daughter of real-life pilot Chuck Gwinn, who was described by his father in the monologue: “At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us….” I think that meeting Gwinn’s daughter resonated a point they already knew— that these were real events lived by real people.
And all three actors seemed fascinated to hear the stories of how “Jaws” seemed to give voice to the real-life Indy survivors, allowing them to finally reveal their roles in the sinking and rescue without having to explain it in detail, which can be unnecessarily agonizing. Many of those men were compelled by the movie to divulge their stories for the first time in their lives, and that in turn became somewhat cathartic. Those men were heroes, some of whom were broken beyond repair, but for whom a fictional movie had great impact on their nonfiction personal psyches. I only wish the movie had come out before my personal hero, Captain Charles B. McVay, took his own life.
Because if ever there was a group of heroes whose stories needed to be told, these were the men. And “Jaws,” more than any other movie, book, or article, shared that story with the largest audience in the world. “The Shark is Broken” gives insight into just how difficult a task that might have been.
“The Shark is Broken” is directed by Guy Masterson. One act, 90 minutes. The play is at times profane, but even that is not unlike any real-life scenes I lived through for years on any of the ships I served on.
William Toti was the final commanding officer of the nuclear submarine USS Indianapolis (SSN-697), was involved in the exoneration of the World War II cruiser Indianapolis’ captain and is currently serving as Chairman of the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization.
Chris from Toronto, Ontario
THRIVES AS A CHARACTER PIECE, NOT AS A LOVE LETTER
Many aspects of this play work, and work very well - From the frustration of actors waiting on set in a world beyond their control, to the interplay of three individuals with naught to do but wait, wonder, and drink. The show shines as tensions among the three ebb and flow, with the play at its best when the audience gets an introspective look behind the scenes at the personal stories and emotions of three involved in the making of the film.
Where the show falls apart, especially in the latter half, is the incessant monologuing (preaching? moralizing?) of Ian Shaw's character. I would suggest it self-serving, but it seems more a love letter from his late father to his son as an apology / explanation for the wrongs he wrought. As if, in bringing his father to life, he is able to find closure in having his father (for good and for ill) explaining/exploring who and why he is. Unfortunately, this draws away from the other strong aspects of this show as the writing devours the story.