Sunday, June 12, 2016

25. Review: RADIANT VERMIN (seen June 10, 2016)

“Mr. Blandings Didn’t Build This Dream House”

Stars range from 5-1.
As anyone who saw Philip Ridley’s bizarre Mercury Fur at the Signature last year is aware, this British playwright has a strong taste for dangerous themes and behavior. I didn’t care much for Mercury Fur, a controversial dystopian drama set in a derelict public housing apartment, so I’m happy to report that Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, a supernatural horror play with a Faustian theme, is more engaging, although it would work much better if 10 or 15 minutes could be snipped off its 90-minute running time. A good place to start would be a sequence toward the end that, technically, inspires one of the most impressive pieces of acting you’ll see on any New York stage but that, like the characters performing it, simply doesn’t know when enough is enough. More of that later. 

Scarlett Alice Johnson, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 Radiant Vermin is performed on a completely empty stage, designed (and lit) by William Reynolds, of white floor and white walls, with three, narrow fluorescent lights hanging overhead. Ridley’s premise is that a sweet-faced, young married couple, the Swifts, the bespectacled Ollie (Sean Michael Verey), in blue sweater, and Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson), in a yellow frock with blue stockings, are telling us their story directly, with the narrative sliding back and forth from the past to the present as they act it out, playing multiple roles.

Scarlett Alice Johnson, Debra Baker, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
When they were financially strapped, with Jill pregnant with baby Benjy and their home a tiny flat “in the crime capital of the universe,” they were contacted by Miss Dee (Debra Baker) of the Department of Social Regeneration through the Creation of Dream Homes. This well-dressed woman (think of her as the Devil), convinces the Swifts—their names echo that of 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, whose “A Modest Proposal” can be glimpsed between the lines—to move into a decrepit, abandoned community where they’ll be given a substantial fixer-upper for free, with all incidental expenses paid for. Miss Dee, who has a preternatural knowledge of everything about them, says their presence will lead to others moving in and thus raising everyone’s property values.
Scarlett Alice Johnson, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Once in their new digs, located among encampments of homeless people, they discover accidentally, when Ollie is attacked by one of them, that all of Jill’s magazine- and department store-inspired home improvement dreams can be realized by the murder of homeless people (the title characters), each of whose deaths magically provides the kitchen or other rooms and appliances desired only 66.6 seconds after the victim (a.k.a. “renovator”) dies; multiple renovations of the same space? Natch. This leads to an escalating slaughter spree that turns their home into a showcase envied by their new neighbors. As they tell their morbid story, Jill and Ollie cheerfully justify their actions, although guilt and potential retribution (there are lots of references to heat and burns) await.
Scarlett Alice Johnson, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Eventually, Jill and Ollie invite their new neighbors over for what they call one-year-old Benjy’s “birthday party from hell” during which they speak and move at Mach speed, playing themselves and all their guests in a zany sequence that goes on and on, testing the actors’ memory and stamina, much like an extended drum solo that exists merely to show off a virtuoso technique. You not only marvel at their ability to do it, you pity them for the sweat you can feel pouring out of their pores. Despite the actors’ remarkable ability to keep their multiple foci clear, the scene eventually devolves into a stream of babble in which it’s impossible to tell (or care) who’s talking at any specific moment.
Scarlett Alice Johnson, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ridley’s play is not only a grotesque satire on dealing with those useless people we call “homeless,” but on consumer excess, greed, the problems of home ownership, and the distorted preoccupations of obsessive child-raising. When Miss Dee offers the Swifts a chance to own even more homes they jump at the chance; “enough is never enough,” is the mantra of these folks, who will soon be customers at the new Never Enough Shopping Centre. 

The idea of having the play enacted on a stage with nary a prop, other than a letter or two, allows the audience to imagine the story being told without the literalism so evident in Mercury Fur. A serious problem, though, is that once the play has made its point it keeps circling back with very little place to go, and drags on far longer than is necessary.
Scarlett Alice Johnson, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Johnson and Verey are superb, each with perfect comic timing and great verbal physical dexterity. David Mercatelli’s staging finds all sorts of clever ways to choreograph their moves and rhythmically time their dialogue. The characters are more cartoons than three-dimensional but the actors are expert at drawing us into their world and accepting their reality. Baker, as both the all-too-knowing bureaucrat and as a shabby vagrant who’s being readied for the slaughter so the house can have a nursery, makes a strong impact whenever she’s on stage.

Radiant Vermin, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is interesting, provocative theatre; I do think, though, it would be better if there weren’t so much of it.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th Street, NYC
Through July 3