Imagine, if you will, a post-apocalyptic New York in which murderous gangs of hallucinating teens kill, rape and maim everyone in their path and drug deals take place in the bombed-out, looted Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Wall Street still somehow stumbles along, ensconced in what’s left of privilege.
That’s the backdrop for the New Group’s production of Philip Ridley’s nightmarish play (originally set in an equally devastated London). True to form, director Scott Elliott’s taken on a dark drama that’s always been steeped in controversy. Reportedly, after Ridley wrote the play in 2005, his publisher of 10 years refused to publish it, and its premiere was slammed by many critics – but the production sold out and gave rise to a cult following. So who better to handle a live grenade like this than the New Group, a theater organization that’s long seemed to relish the challenge of disturbing material (as evidenced by its excellent lineup last season: Sticks and Bones, Rasheeda Speaking and The Spoils)? But, alas, Mercury Fur may have been a misstep.
As the play’s intermissionless two hours begins, the theater’s swathed in total darkness, which lasts for an uncomfortably long time, until two scruffy teens with a flashlight enter what turns out to be a trashed, graffiti-covered apartment where they commence (wait for it) to start cleaning up. The boys turn out to be brothers Elliot (Zane Pais) and Darren (Jack DiFalco). Tense, alert and perpetually ill at ease, Elliot’s clearly in charge, while his slower, stupider and more emotionally needy brother is the obedient work crew, but it soon emerges that both of them are in the service of the mysterious but evidently fearsome Spinx (Sea McHale), scrambling to create an appropriate venue for a “party” at which they’ll all be entertaining a “party guest.”
All of this exposition is made possible largely due to the fact that the hallucinogenic butterflies that are the drug du jour have the unfortunate (or is it?) side effect of eradicating memory. So the addicted Darren needs a lot of reminding and explaining, while Elliot, who refuses to partake, is bursting with anxious memory. Naz (the likeable Tony Revolori), a stoner squatter from down the hall, comes by and offers to help, but then the menacing Spinx arrives with the Duchess (a creepily daffy Emily Cass McDonnell), an apparently older and very spaced-out woman in a ball gown who calls him Papa. After that, everything goes wrong – you know how it is before a party. Only, it emerges, the stakes for this party’s success are a lot higher than anyone had all realized.
This summary may sound absurdly portentous, but that’s a reflection of the play’s own hyperbolic foreshadowing. These characters are, in their moments of coherence, at once desperate to and desperately afraid to connect. And, condemned to repeat the past they can’t remember, they come up against that inexorable conundrum again and again, in increasingly grim permutations, until violence seems the only way to undo that Gordian knot.
The language, at its best, is eerie and disturbingly evocative, surreally juxtaposing the fragments of destroyed beauty and horrific violence that we’re led to understand are pretty much all that’s left outside the apartment. But to those of us whose minds haven’t been destroyed by butterflies, the repetition of what are evidently key points and the heavy-handedness of the symbolism can be wearing.
What’s hardest to bear – without giving anything away – is the nasty game of chicken the drama ends up playing with the audience, as we wait, with increasing disquiet, to see if the act of sadism we anticipate will actually be enacted on the stage. The feeling’s visceral but ultimately distancing, which renders what’s supposed to be the play’s dramatic distorted moral denouement an anticlimactic aftermath.
The actors try valiantly to make sense of their characters through the play’s twists and turns, but perhaps to maintain the heightened, threatening atmosphere, their performances often feel a little overwrought. Paul Iacono’s entertaining to watch as Elliot’s fierce, histrionic paramour, Lola, and Peter Mark Kendall is indeed alarmingly contemporary as the Wall Street guest whose fantasies are being catered to at this shindig.
And yes, the audience is effectively (albeit unknowingly) paying to witness Mr. Wall Street’s experience, and some are even sitting on beat-up sofas that might as well be inside that apartment. But the more the play tries to bludgeon us into believing that the horrors we see are within us all, the more off-putting its manipulative staging of sadism becomes. While the audience may indeed leave feeling grateful for whatever vestiges of civilization we have left, we’re unlikely to see much of ourselves in the characters onstage. However much we may have pitied them and feared for them, by the time the play’s final ethical dilemma confronts these characters, we’ve already foreseen how this party ends.