Remembering Jaws: ‘The Shark Is Broken’

What makes “The Shark Is Broken” so engrossing are the actors playing Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.
Remembering Jaws: ‘The Shark Is Broken’
Designer Duncan Henderson’s set with the cast aboard the Orca for the Broadway play “The Shark Is Broken.” (Matthew Murphy)
NEW YORK –The behind-the-scenes turmoil that occurred during the making of the 1975 film “Jaws” is the stuff of cinematic legend. The production featured actors who did not get along, a script often rewritten at the last minute, and the continual malfunctions of the mechanical shark used during the underwater scenes. All of these issues, along with the sardonic humor that comes from hindsight, are enjoyably brought to the Broadway stage in the comedy the “The Shark Is Broken.”

Talking on a Fishing Boat

The action takes place on the open ocean, east of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, on the fishing boat Orca. Actors Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell), Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman), and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw, the son of Robert) wait yet again as the technical team tries to get the shark to work properly. In the meantime, the three play cards, talk, drink, quarrel and occasionally become introspective as the time ticks slowly by.
(L–R) Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell), Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw, the son of Robert), and Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) in “The Shark Is Broken.” (Matthew Murphy)
(L–R) Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell), Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw, the son of Robert), and Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) in “The Shark Is Broken.” (Matthew Murphy)

Much of the play deals with the friction between the then 47-year-old Shaw and the 28-year-old Dreyfuss—the two at vastly different points in their careers. Dreyfuss is beset by insecurities as he’s convinced a film he just completed will be an absolute failure. Shaw is far more cynical and would rather focus on his writing: He was a published novelist, playwright, and screenwriter and had to be cajoled into joining the cast of  “Jaws.”

Shaw’s writing efforts are visible in a key speech, one presented several times here, with Shaw eventually adding his own input to get the finished results.

The Shaw-Dreyfuss relationship at times mirrors that of an adversarial father and son. One seeks to be accepted while the other attempts to dispense wisdom; neither pays enough attention to the other.

Interspersed with these confrontations are more somber situations. Shaw talks about his relationship with his own father, who died at age 52, and wonders if he will outlive him (he doesn’t). Other strong moments include Shaw’s dissertation on his relationship with alcohol, which manifests itself more than once during the shoot.

The audience also gets to see Dreyfuss’s increasing paranoia erupt into a full-blown panic attack.

(L–R) Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) watches as Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) argue, and they do that a lot in “The Shark Is Broken.” (Matthew Murphy)
(L–R) Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) watches as Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) and Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw) argue, and they do that a lot in “The Shark Is Broken.” (Matthew Murphy)

These and other incidents allow the “The Shark Is Broken” to become more than a piece about the making of a movie. Topics such as family, regrets over past decisions, and the importance of forging one’s own path all come into focus. Also of note is a comment Shaw makes about how actors and acting styles are changing and that people like him are in danger of becoming obsolete.

What makes the show so engrossing are the performances by the three cast members, each of whom closely resemble the actors they portray. Ian Shaw in particular, looks and sounds so much like his late father that it’s scary. The younger Shaw, who actually visited the set of “Jaws” as a boy, also co-wrote “The Shark Is Broken” with Joseph Nixon.

Shaw does a great job in his portrayal of his father as a complicated and conflicted man. He’s fully aware of his abilities and his limitations. He also has some of the funniest lines in the play, such as when the trio discuss what they believe the film is really about.

Brightman nicely presents Dreyfuss as somewhat neurotic. He’s a bit too eager to learn from his more established co-stars, while at the same time not afraid to step on their toes.

Donnell has the more difficult part as the quieter, more restrained Scheider. He’s continually forced to step in between the other two in an attempt to head off conflicts. Yet he interacts well with the others and also gets a chance to insert some interesting insights of his own. An early speech of his regarding “takes,” in reference to both time and filmmaking, is particularly amusing.

Industry Mentions

The play is filled with bits of trivia and more than a few inside jokes. The characters drop such names as George Lucas, Harold Pinter, Duddy Kravitz, and Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie, among others.

We also learn why Dreyfuss actually joined the film; that Schneider wasn’t the first choice for his role; and why Spielberg left before the final scene. Especially enjoyable is when the three wonder if this film will even be remembered, and also what’s next for the industry after tackling sharks.

Guy Masterson’s direction is strong throughout, as is Duncan Henderson’s set. However, the play, which originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, would have worked far better in a smaller venue to add to the claustrophobic feeling the show tries to project. Timothy R. Semon’s projection work of the ocean is excellent.

For those who find this subject of interest, “The Shark Is Broken” offers a funny, sobering and nostalgia-filled experience.

‘The Shark Is Broken’ John Golden Theatre 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission) Closes: Nov. 19
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.
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