NEW YORK — Entrance applause is the theater world’s People’s Choice Award, the accolade bestowed by audiences on celebrities they admire as they glide into sight for the first time. Or maybe the clapping is triggered by a smugger reflex — a reward a spectator shares with the star, a pat on one’s own back for being lucky and smart enough to have shelled out exorbitant amounts to bask in the radiant glow of a beloved Famous Person.
Hugh Jackman gets a rousing round of entrance applause in “The River,” and in his case it’s especially deserved, not merely because Jackman, beyond the GQ luminosity, is truly multi-talented, a magnetic song-and-dance man who by dint of a chiseled torso is also a conqueror of super villains on the silver screen. His warm reception is additionally apt here because this opaque drama, by the estimable English playwright Jez Butterworth (“Jerusalem,” “Mojo”), would feel an even thinner event without someone in it of his caliber.
The 85-minute play falls somewhere between thriller and love story, without being sufficiently filling as either; the plot keeps its numerous secrets so close to the vest that it never manages to tantalize, and its characters are too cold to develop feelings for. Jackman’s character, identified only as The Man, is a robust fishing enthusiast who can’t seem to land the woman of his dreams — if such a woman exists. The story goes that The Man, when he was still The Boy, let the first fish he ever caught get away. And now, smart, beautiful women wriggle out of his grasp for more mysterious and possibly creepier reasons. Well, two women at least, designated on this occasion as The Woman (Cush Jumbo) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).
Over the course of “The River,” which had its official opening Sunday night at Circle in the Square Theater, the Woman and the Other Woman alternately slip in and out of the story, essentially playing the same role, replacing each other in the ongoing sequence of events. How many other women has The Man invited to this secluded cabin, the one to which the men in his family before him, he tells us, also loved and lost? It would be gratifying to report that this inquiry gets to the heart of a scintillating mystery, but Butterworth himself gets lost here, mostly in his own lofty poetry.
The atmosphere of “The River” is all. Director Ian Rickson, in concert with set designer Ultz, conjures the rustic interior of The Man’s fishing retreat as dark and earthy — hauntingly beautiful, perhaps haunted. Butterworth’s overwrought language, by contrast, draws too much breathless attention to itself. Catching a fish isn’t merely a rush, it’s “like a million sunsets rolled into a ball and shot straight into your veins.”
In point of fact, the most absorbing moments of “The River” occur when the conversation subsides and Jackman spends several wordless minutes listening to music as he guts, washes and seasons an actual trout. With the actor’s deft application of knife skills, the interlude offers the evening’s only mouth-watering preparation.
The River, by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson. Set and costumes, Ultz; lighting, Charles Balfour; music, Stephen Warbeck; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph. About 85 minutes. Tickets, $35-$175. At Circle in the Square Theater, 235 W. 50th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.