"The Wrong Kind of Goosebumps"
|Stars range from 5-1.|
There are at least four principal reasons I felt discomfited when I saw British playwright Philip Ridley’s controversial MERCURY FUR. One was the lack of a program (my guest and I must have been overlooked by whoever was handing them out when the play ended). Another was the powerful blasting of the air conditioning, despite it being a mild evening, causing bare-armed and shorts-wearing spectators to feel more goosebumps from the ice box conditions than from anything the would-be chiller of a play could produce.
|Jack DiFalco, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
A third was having to sit for over two uninterrupted hours on a hard wooden kitchen chair. That’s related to the strikingly derelict ambience of Derek McLane’s immersive setting: the auditorium is divided into two sets of bleachers facing an acting area looking like the scuzziest abandoned apartment imaginable, with spectators also viewing from overhead galleries; the first couple of bleacher rows include a random assortment of discarded kitchen chairs, sofas, loveseats, and cushioned arm chairs. Since the audience is warned that it will be difficult to leave the intermissionless play in mid-performance, it’s given small maps indicating the nearest emergency exits. And then there’s number four, the play itself, from which my guest said he’d have departed early had the circumstances for doing so been less complex.
MERCURY FUR, directed at a high decibel and energy level by Scott Elliott, was originally produced in London in 2005 with environment and accents appropriate to that city. London critics and audiences were sharply divided. The current version, set in a boarded up, dilapidated, graffiti-covered New York public housing apartment, has proved similarly controversial. It all takes place in a vaguely defined dystopian future, only a few years down the line. Susan Hilferty’s contemporary costumes range from grunge to rocker to preppy. For some unexplained reason, a TV flickers during the preshow although when the play begins total darkness descends, since the place has no electricity; lighting designer Jeff Croiter does exceptional work under these limitations. However much the apartment looks disgustingly decrepit, the characters (apart from one) seem to live elsewhere in conventional homes.
Society has gone to anarchy and ruin, but the script is murky about the circumstances, referring only to riots, a giant sandstorm, and an infestation of butterflies. Most of the characters, anxious, desperate, and profane, have vague recollections of their pasts, largely because of those flying insects, the eating of which provides memory dulling, addictive, and violent fantasies that differ depending on which color butterfly (two-tone blue, red with silver stripes, etc.) is ingested. But Wall Street still operates, and people smoke, carry cell phones, drive cars, and use video cameras. Language has gone down a notch, however, and, despite Mr. Ridley’s clearly apparent talent for juicy verbiage, the nonstop barrage of filthy words, vile ethnic slurs, and violent imagery his characters spout grows tiresome and boring.
Since so few people seem to read anymore, the angry and controlling 19-year-old Elliott (Zane Pais), who uses words like “alacrity” and “abattoir,” is the only one present who does, and is thus considered a fount of knowledge; he’s also the only one who refuses to eat butterflies, although he makes his living selling them from an ice cream truck. For his more intellectually challenged younger brother, the 16-year-old Darren (Jack DiFalco), history is a strange mashup of wild inaccuracies, such as his belief that Marilyn Monroe was John F. Kennedy’s wife, which led to Kennedy’s declaring war on Germany when Hitler showed an undue fondness for her.
The first to arrive are the hoody-wearing, pistol-packing Elliot and the crew-cut Darren, whose love-hate relationship is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s George and Lenny; they quickly set about removing the boards from the windows and straightening up the detritus for a party they’re arranging to satisfy the bloodthirsty tastes of the Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall); this guy, a Wall Street sadist dressed in a red sport shirt and light-colored slacks, wants to pay big bucks for the thrill of using a meat hook to execute someone in an imaginary Vietnamese jungle while dressed in camo. The clueless Naz (Tony Revolori), a 15-year-old who moved into another empty apartment shortly before the play begins, joins the brothers and befriends the needful Darren, even allowing him to share ownership of his pistol, which he carefully deposits in a desk drawer. (If you remember Chekhov’s dictum about plays that introduce guns in the first act, raise your hand!)
|From left: Jack DiFalco, Tony Revolori, Peter Mark Kendall, Sea McHale, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Arriving to film the party is another armed dude (a word spoken at least 50 times), 21-year-old Spinx (Sea McHale), who looks nearly albino with his buzz-cut and eyebrows dyed platinum, his tough guy’s black leather getup and bling sending off a Billy Idol vibe. In his care is the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonell), a blind, epileptic woman of 38 in dark glasses who calls Spinx “Papa,” and who the others treat as royalty. Her fuzzy memory of her pre-apocalyptic middle-class life conflates her with Maria von Trapp from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, although she looks more like Eva Peron in EVITA; who she really is will gradually be revealed (even though she seems too young for it), but it’s no big deal since she’s such an opaque presence. There’s also Lola (Paul Iacono), a gender bending 19-year-old man involved with Elliott, there to help with the preparations. The object of everyone’s attention is the Party Piece (Bradley Fong), a 10-year-old boy whose horrific destiny is to be realized while dressed in a gold Elvis Presley suit.
Much as this all sounds potentially fascinating as a piece of frightening Grand Guignolish grotesquery, the play is actually rather tame. The actors race through their paces and shout angrily at each other with enthusiastic ferocity, but only rarely does anyone crack the surface of believability; much of the time they seem engaged in the kind of horror movie kids with cameras like to make. Several, especially the one-note Mr. Pais, occasionally gabble so rapidly their words can barely be understood. For all its ostensible gore and bloodiness, the play’s most ghastly scene is no more frightening than any similar theatrical bloodfest; the proximity of actors playacting at slaughter can never substitute for the dread of the unseen. The first time I saw an actor covered in blood was Jason Robards, Jr.’s performance in Hellman’s TOYS IN THE ATTIC in 1960. It registered strongly enough for me to recall it 55 years later. Since then, blood-spattered actors, even with fake intestines spewing out of their guts, have outworn their welcome.
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Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through September 27