Barebones Bounces Back to Braddock with “Misery”

By Sharon Eberson

Patrick Jordan is giddy with anticipation these days, having spent much of the past two-plus years keeping up our spirits while working tirelessly toward this moment when barebones productions is back in action.

So why on earth return with a show called Misery?

It’s not just because it’s about torturing a writer, is it?

“I wanted to come back with something that checked a lot of barebones boxes. I wanted to open with a bang,” the director said. Sitting on his barebones (for the moment) set: A wooden turntable designed by Tony Ferrieri that takes up the whole of the stage area named for Jordan’s friend and mentor, the late Bingo O’Malley.

The turntable designed by Tony Ferrieri for Misery fits snuggly into barebones blackbox theater in Braddock. (Photo by Sharon Eberson)

Some of barebones’ patrons were hankering for a comedy after the long wait to come back. But, Jordan chose Stephen King’s novel-turned-movie-turned-play instead. It is a psychological thriller punctuated with acts of violence. It has the intimacy of a three-hander and the grit that is a barebones trademark. And when humor does burst through, it’s wicked.

All of this makes Misery on-brand for the company Jordan has been building and rebuilding since 2003. Between stage and screen acting gigs, he installed his company into the space below John Fetterman’s Braddock home and behind the former Superior Motors restaurant, just across the street from the sprawling Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

As his bio says, “When not on the stage, behind it, or fixing it, Patrick is spending time with his wife Eileen and performing his favorite role as father to Pepper.”

The only thing that changed during the pandemic was the “on the stage” part. But that didn’t stop Jordan. Along with some tech-, food- and talk-savvy friends, his Alone Together Pittsburgh webcasts showcased local artists, activists, food and drink creators, and purveyors … you name it.

All the while, he was reading scripts and articles about plays and, eventually, refitting his theater with a new air filtration system, made possible by two grants and his own sweat and, well, grit.

He landed on Misery as the comeback play after having talked about it years earlier with his friend and frequent collaborator, David Whalen.

“I had a couple of shows I was really close to doing, and then people pushing me to do a comedy, because people have been so depressed … but I was like, ‘I think it’s time to do Misery. People are ready for something they can sink their teeth into,” Jordan said. “And this isn’t a horror show, but there’s horror in it. It’s a thriller, really. And I feel like the planets lined up for this.”

The bloody good novel became a popular movie and featured an Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates as deranged fan Annie Wilkes, who imprisons injured romance writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and forces him to indulge her whims. William Goldman adapted his screenplay for the stage, and the premiere starring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis, in his Broadway debut, ran from Nov 15, 2015, to Feb 14, 2016.

Flash forward to 2018, and Misery was onstage again at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, starring Whalen as Paul. Whalen reprises that role for barebones, opposite Sheila McKenna as Annie, with James Howard as Buster.

“The cast is amazing,” Jordan said. “David and Sheila are working great together – they went to school together [at Point Park University] and haven’t worked together a lot since. And James Howard, I know him from film work. This may be his first play, but he’s a natural.”

There were nervous moments when Whalen signed on to do Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Murder on the Orient Express, Jordan moved back the opening of Misery – to Friday the 13th, as it happens – just in case. Murder’s run was extended.

Barebones will reduce capacity in its blackbox theater, sporting a brand-new air filtration system, to about 60 masked patrons for the run of “Misery”.

Whalen split some days between Downtown and Braddock, but now he’s in Misery full time, working on his director’s vision and making the necessary adjustments coming from the Public’s O’Reilly Theater, which seats more than 600, into barebones’ cozy black box, at fewer than 70 seats. For example, in Braddock, the actors don’t have to project to the last row of a big house. Another adjustment from the Cincinnati production of Misery is the turntable and tight space for Whalen to maneuver in a wheelchair.

“David’s one of those actors who can work well in film and stage, so it’s like a switch for him. It was like [snaps fingers], ‘Let’s just do this.’ Same with Sheila,” Jordan said.

The behind-the-scenes creative team includes lighting design by Andrew Ostrowski and Steve Tolin of Tolin FX – when you see blood, you can thank Tolin.

And then there is “the bed.”

Whalen spends much of the play either in a bed or wheelchair because of the trauma inflicted on Paul’s legs – which we see mangled and animated via FX magic, created from a cast of Bruce Willis’ legs and used in the Broadway production.

Jordan’s eyes light up when he talks about the specially outfitted bed, which had to be picked up in New Jersey and escorted to Pittsburgh. Tolin was bursting with excitement when he saw the word “Legacy” on the bed’s crate – that’s Legacy Effects, as in the company that creates dinosaurs for the Jurassic World films.

Lending a hand to bring the unique prop to Pittsburgh was Rick Sordelet, the co-fight director for Misery on Broadway. “I got in touch with him and ended up just being a champion for us,” Jordan said. While Randy Kovitz is the fight coordinator for barebones, Sordelet not only shared his knowledge but he also went to bat for “a little theater” to get this special prop.

“When I saw that, and I saw the artistry that went into this apparatus, I got so excited!” Jordan said. “And now I looked around, and everyone is really happy to be here, and we’re hitting the ground running.”

It’s been a long time coming. Since March 8 and 9, 2020, to be exact. Those were the last days when there was an audience in Braddock, for a sold-out Pulp Fiction screening, with drink and food pairings to match the onscreen action. Jordan would ring a bell, and six servers would arrive with food to match what was happening onscreen. It was supposed to be the launch of a potential series that would combine cult classic films and timed food pairings by Superior Motors – which closed for good in August of last year.

Of the food and film series, “It’ll be back,” Jordan vowed.
But that’s for another time.

Now is the time for Misery.

Misery is at barebones productions’ black box theater, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock, on the Bingo O’Malley Stage, May 13-June 5. Every evening performance includes a paid pop-up bar with cocktails from Lo Bar and snacks by Black Radish, which also will host a brunch buffet for the first three Sunday matinees (May 15, 22, and 29) with cocktails from Lo Bar. Tickets, COVID protocols, and more: https://www.barebonesproductions.com/misery

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