'The Shark Is Broken' review — rough seas behind the scenes of 'Jaws'

Read our review of The Shark Is Broken on Broadway, featuring Ian Shaw, Alex Brightman, and Colin Donnell as the stars of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Jaws and its famously problem-plagued 1974 film shoot in Martha’s Vineyard will appreciate the sly prologue of The Shark Is Broken on Broadway. As a scene- and tone-setter, it’s killer.

On a projected ocean backdrop, a shark fin cuts through the water. Ominous music (by Adam Cork, channeling John Williams's iconic theme) teases a deadly attack. But then the music gives way to a sad trombone, a sign that the mechanical man-eater has malfunctioned. Again.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s funny. But not so much then for newbie director Steven Spielberg’s leads – Robert Shaw as Quint, a salty shark hunter; Roy Scheider, as the local sheriff, Brody; and Richard Dreyfuss, as scientist Hooper. They endured chronic mind-numbing delays – and, worse, each other. Three actors. One small boat. Do the math.

Playwrights Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon start with the movie’s well-chronicled past and churn it into an amusing behind-the-scenes comedy about the quirks of filmmaking, the fragility of male egos, and, for heft, fathers and sons.

That family dynamics bubble up to the surface is no surprise, since Ian Shaw dreamed up this idea and plays his late father at the Golden Theatre, as he did before in earlier runs in Brighton, Edinburgh, and London. Colin Donnell now portrays Scheider, and Alex Brightman steps up as Dreyfuss.

Set on Quint’s boat — faithfully rendered by scenic designer Duncan Henderson and dramatically lit by Jon Clark — the play imagines what went down between scenes. It wasn’t pretty. The fact that alpha male Robert Shaw was an alcoholic and insecure Dreyfuss, per this play, did “lines” (and not the ones in the script) didn’t help.

Off-camera dynamics mirrored movie ones. Quint bullied Hooper. Shaw taunted Dreyfuss by ridiculing his manhood and his work, warning, “Mind your mannerisms!” Dreyfuss alternately worried if he was any good and bragged about being the film’s star.

Scheider was adrift in the middle as the peacemaker — when he wasn’t stripping down to a Speedo to work on his tan. Who knew The French Connection Oscar nominee was a “pathological” sun worshiper? That tidbit turns out to be the most surprising insight in the show.

Jaws was action-packed. The Shark Is Broken is all talk, and a pattern emerges. Shaw and Dreyfuss clash. Scheider referees. It gets repetitive over the 95-minute run time. On the plus side, there are moments when the warring trio clicks and a sort of camaraderie shines through. Plus, the co-authors seasoned the script with laughs.

Some humor comes with a knowing wink. There’s a comment about Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency during the film shoot, being the most immoral president ever. There’s scoffing about the unseen Spielberg, whose next movie will be about, of all things, aliens. And Scheider vows he’ll never do a Jaws sequel. Never say never.

Director Guy Masterson guides the evocative production and fine-tuned cast. In the least showy part, Donnell (Anything Goes, Chicago Med) lends ballast as the even-keeled Scheider. Brightman, a Tony nominee for School of Rock and Beetlejuice the Musical, proves to be a master of mimicry and cranks the nerdy, needy intensity to 11 as Dreyfuss.

Ian Shaw is a dead ringer for his dad and is fun to watch simply for that reason. The play is, ultimately, a valentine to Robert Shaw. The filming of Quint’s chilling monologue about the atomic bomb in Jaws, a speech he was too drunk to get right in the first take, concludes the play on serious note.

Occasionally, between “action” and “cut,” there’s smooth sailing. As it bites into movie history, The Shark Is Broken makes for a diversion worth sea-ing.

The Shark Is Broken is at the Golden Theatre until November 19. Get The Shark Is Broken tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Colin Donnell, Alex Brightman, and Ian Shaw in The Shark Is Broken. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Originally published on

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