(New York Jewish Week) — In 1974, three men — Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw — spent countless hours together aboard the Orca, a converted fishing boat docked in the open ocean east of Martha’s Vineyard. The trio, all actors, were filming “Jaws,” the Steven Spielberg-directed blockbuster whose filming schedule famously went 100 days over schedule.
The Orca is also the setting, and the men the cast of characters, of the play “The Shark Is Broken,” now playing at Broadway’s Golden Theatre. The play chronicles the tense relationships between the actors as they sit onboard, day after day, waiting — with decreasing amounts of patience — for the film’s mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce”) to be repaired so filming can continue. Like any group of near-strangers forced together in close proximity for a prolonged period of time, they bicker, bare their souls and play mindless games to pass the time.
Alex Brightman, 36, a Tony-nominated actor best known for originating leading roles in “Beetlejuice” and “School of Rock,” plays Dreyfuss, the Jewish actor who himself played the movie’s earnest marine biologist, Matt Hooper.
“The Shark Is Broken” keeps its three-person cast onstage for nearly the entire 90-minute show, and much of it centers around Shaw’s distaste for Dreyfuss. (Shaw is played by his son, Ian Shaw, who co-wrote the play based, in part, on his father’s drinking diary from his time on set.) Shaw — embittered, ill-tempered and frequently drunk— has no patience for Dreyfuss, a Brooklyn native who is anxious, eager and, according to the script, caught the acting bug after auditioning for a play at Los Angeles’ Westside JCC.
Dreyfuss’ Jewish identity is made clear from the play’s start, primarily through his own self-deprecating humor. He jokes about how his skin “bypasses tan and goes directly to sunstroke,” and how Spielberg nearly cast the emphatically non-Jewish looking John Voigt in the role of Hooper. Expressing his dislike for the ocean, Dreyfuss says, “Jews should stay away from water. Nothing good ever happened to any Jews on the water.” (Turns out that’s a sentiment with which Brightman, not a huge fan of the ocean himself, wholeheartedly agrees.) Later, as the characters dive into their childhoods, Dreyfuss reveals how his “typical Jewish father” wanted him to become either a lawyer or a doctor; this sliver of backstory helps the viewer to understand the anxiety Dreyfuss is feeling about achieving success as an actor.
Like Dreyfuss, Brightman is Jewish. He approaches his character with a fast-talking vulnerability, throwing his full physicality into the role. The New York Jewish Week caught up with Brightman in between shows to hear about his own Jewish identity, what it’s like playing a real person and how he relates to Dreyfuss’ Jewishness.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re playing Richard Dreyfuss, who’s a real actor, and who’s also still living. What was it like preparing for this role?
I think I was ignorant to the idea that it was strange when I was first auditioning for it, which I guess is a good thing. But as it’s gone forward, the pressure started to build a little bit because he’s alive and probably knows about it. I watched interviews of him, pretty much only from the year or two surrounding the filming of “Jaws,” because that’s before he was the Academy Award winner [in 1977, for “The Goodbye Girl”]. He was nervous, he had imposter syndrome, and he had this huge ambition to be not only a successful actor, but to be famous. I can empathize with so many things that he went through. But it was really the voice, the mannerism work and the posture. It’s been really fun for me to figure out that real human beings can also be characters to inhabit.
There are so many jokes throughout the play about Richard Dreyfuss’ Jewishness. Does that help you feel a sense of kinship with him?
As he says in the show, “The people of Martha’s Vineyard, they look at me like they’ve never seen a Jew before.” I think it’s about the ostracizing, or even the sort of loneliness or isolation that comes from being something a lot of people didn’t, and really don’t, understand. I can relate to his anxiety about being someone that doesn’t inherently belong, or has been persecuted in the past. He has his walls up. And I think that was an interesting thing to play, because being in theater is about being vulnerable. And he isn’t, until he has to be. He’s full of loudness and bravado, but I think only later on does he feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable around strangers. And I totally understand that as a Jewish person.
Can you tell me a bit about your own Jewish upbringing and sense of Jewish identity?
I’m Jewish by genetics. My mom is Jewish, my dad is Jewish, and so I am. I never went to Hebrew school, mainly because I didn’t love regular school. My parents both had bar and bat mitzvahs, and I think they got something out of it; they definitely have some culture still ingrained. But they didn’t want to press that upon me or my brother, mainly because it wasn’t a daily practice for them.
I’m definitely culturally Jewish, even stereotypically. I’m funny. I know that seems odd, it’s not an objective thing, but I think that a lot of Jewish people I know in show business are the funniest people I know. And I know that might be a slight defense mechanism from history. I wasn’t really raised in a way that felt meaningfully Jewish, but I think I feel more Jewish now than ever.
Your character’s Jewishness feels in many ways like a throughline in his tension with Robert Shaw. Do you have a sense of how much that was based on reality?
I can’t speak for how Jewishness played into their feuding. But the reality is that they didn’t get each other — they just fundamentally did not understand each other on a human level, and on a professional level. They couldn’t relate to each other. I think some of it has to be about culture and being Jewish; I think it fuels their misunderstanding. In the show, Richard is persecuted more than anybody else. Richard is beat up, literally. He’s manhandled and thrown around. I can’t help but think under the context of being Jewish, it’s like at this point — then and also now — Jews are kind of through being tortured.
In the play, Dreyfuss is anxious about the impending release of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” in which he played the titular lead. That means that you are a Jew, playing a Jewish character, who is nervous about playing a Jewish character. Do you ever find yourself getting lost in the layers?
You’ve touched upon something that is a nightly struggle. I feel like I’m in the movie “Inception”: It’s a Jew, playing a Jew, playing a Jew. Where does it end, and where am I in that? Sometimes I do get lost even to the point where when I leave the theater I can’t shake the [Dreyfuss] accent — a sort of Queens, fast-talking, anxious, almost Woody Allen type. I think that might be a big part of who I am. It’s easier to shake off the things that are so anti-you, and I think that sometimes I bring home more of the Jewish anxiety than I anticipated.
“The Shark is Broken” is scheduled to close Nov. 19. What’s next for you after that?
I’m doing “Spamalot” in January on Broadway at the St. James. And I have a lot of writing in the hopper. I wrote a play called “Everything Is Fine” that’s getting a reading this month, and I’m hoping that it will get a production sooner than later. It explores identity, the difference between moving on and moving forward. It’s definitely about trauma but it is a comedy, very pitch black. And other than that, I’m just trying to work on this work-life balance. I’ve done so much work-work, that it’s been really nice to dive back into life-life.