What would you do to get a home? How far would you go? What if it were free? These are just a few of the questions posed to the audience by Jill and Ollie, a young married couple at the center of Philip Ridley’s sharply satirical Radiant Vermin. If anyone ever thought rampant consumerism is an American phenomenon, look no further. Ridley takes strategic aim at relatively new spectacle in the UK and hits a bull’s-eye.
Playing Jill and Ollie, Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey, along with the charming and talented Debra Baker, bring Ridley’s hilarious script to life. Jill and Ollie, who have a newborn on the way, intimate early on that they are not proud of what they’ve done, but they have received a letter from the "Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes" offering them a free home. The letter invites them to meet Miss Dee (Baker) at their new residence to receive the keys. After much back-and-forth, Jill and Ollie decide to meet her in the rundown, relatively empty neighborhood. Miss Dee arrives and produces the contract from a satchel that is very reminiscent of Mary Poppins’. Although they have concerns about the local homeless camps near the house, they sign the contract.
The antics begin the first night in their new home when Jill and Ollie hear someone in the kitchen downstairs. Ollie, who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a mouse, investigates wielding a brass candlestick. The fight with the intruder, who was rummaging for food, is brutal fun, with Verey showing off a gift for physical comedy: he chokes himself and pulls at his own hair before taking a fatal swipe at the intruder with the candlestick. The actor is affable and charming, yet quick and nuanced. Ollie runs to get Jill and, instead of finding a body, they return to find a brand-new kitchen, “the kitchen we saw in Selfridge’s!” But they quickly learn that “renovating” takes on serious implications.
Ridley is known for examining the darker side of humanity, and Radiant Vermin is no exception. There are few if any props, and yet between the detailed script and superb staging by David Mercatali, it is as if everything described is physically in place. Playing only against a solid white backdrop, Verey and Johnson not only portray their characters but also each neighbor as the houses begin to fill up around them and the “keeping up with the Joneses”-type conversations with the neighbors, about furniture and lighting, gardens and automobiles, builds to a mad pace. In order to “remodel,” Jill and Ollie lure more homeless in. The neighborhood becomes a hotbed of consumerism: the “Never Enough Shopping Centre” is opening nearby and their unfettered remodeling begins to tear at the fabric of their souls. Baker reappears as Kay, one of the homeless they have brought home. In a touching scene, she relates the rumors on the streets about people luring the homeless, who never return.
The crescendo, when Jill and Ollie are cajoled into throwing their son’s first birthday party for all the neighbors, is outstanding. Between Ridley’s fantastical writing, Mercatali’s direction, and Verey and Johnson’s acting, numerous neighbors come to life in a frenzy of mime, dialect, and comedic timing. Lighting choices by production designer William Reynolds heighten the frenetic dialogue at the birthday party. If occasionally amid the British accents some of the words are lost, the birthday-party scene is nevertheless priceless.
Verey and Johnson are the heart of this fast-paced black comedy, delivering Ridley’s satiric dialogue. He allows a peek behind the curtain of civility and jabs at human nature. It’s easy to see with Radiant Vermin just how seductive our buying habits become with just a little coaxing. If this is the best Britain has to export, long live Brits Off Broadway.
Radiant Vermin continues at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues) through July 3. Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and at 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 3:15 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.