The haunting leitmotif of British playwright Jez Butterworth’s dark and compelling new play, Parlour Song, which is receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is of things disappearing from a man’s home. “It starts small” -- the sole words of the play’s prelude -- with a pocket watch, an old set of golf clubs, other household items and things scavenged from garage sales, but progresses to include early, significant gifts exchanged between the man and his wife. That trajectory of loss tracks the dwindling of the couple’s 11-year-old marriage. Ned (Chris Bauer) and Joy (Emily Mortimer) find themselves in their early 40s living in a cookie-cutter house in a new subdivision in suburban England, alienated from their own past, from the natural environment, and from each other.
Ned, fleshy and emotional, is devoted to Joy but terrified that she has drifted away from him, while Joy, skinny and brittle, is the quintessence of opaque detachment, unable or unwilling to respond to Ned’s tentative overtures. Into their lives walks their next-door neighbor, Dale (Jonathan Cake), brawny, self-confident and restless.
What catapults this domestic drama into a work of far greater force and scope is Butterworth’s savage wit, his vivid imagery and his mastery of stagecraft and story-telling.
Parlour Song nimbly zigzags from realism to the netherworld of sleepwalking and nightmares. The petty household thievery triggers a nightmare for Ned so terrifying that he refuses to sleep; only in the play’s final moments do we learn the lineaments of that nightmare and its counterpart in Joy’s mind.
The play gains further resonance from the connections that Butterworth draws between his characters’ unhappiness and a world in which nature is in retreat, history holds no value, and sex and Youtube substitute for intimacy and culture.
Ned, a demolitions expert, sits at home watching over and over again video clips of buildings that he and his crew have sent tumbling. He has a project on deck to blow up the town’s Arndale Centre, the community's shopping center, to make way for the New Arndale Centre. When pressed by his wife for a valid reason for tearing down the old building, Ned nonchalantly reminds Joy that there was a forest five years ago where their house now stands. “It was here for a 1,000 years. Now it’s gone. We’re here. Everything has its time.”
Butterworth is adept at capturing the oblique, coded conversations that take place between close friends or family members. Joy, Ned and Dale rarely say outright what they think or feel. Joy carefully praises the roast duck that Ned has prepared for her, while her tone of voice and diffident, little bites communicate something quite different about the dinner – and their relationship.
Parlour Song marks the most recent collaboration between the 39-year-old Butterworth and the Atlantic Theater Company and its artistic director, Neil Pepe. Under Pepe's sure-footed direction, the three-member cast is outstanding. If there is a flaw in Butterworth’s play, it is the implausibility of the love affair between the schlumpy Ned and the gazelle-like Joy and the odd friendship that Ned and Dale strike up. Yet, the three actors’ personal chemistry wash away any doubts about these relationships.
Chris Bauer brings great emotionality as well as comic finesse to the role of Ned. Emily Mortimer is equally convincing as the suburban housewife come unhinged by depression. And Jonathan Cake, coming off a startlingly similar role as lady-killer Iachimo in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at the Lincoln Center this fall, is magnetic as the cocky yet amiable Dale.
The design team likewise does impeccable work. Of particular note are Kenneth Posner’s sharp and lucid lighting, Robert Brill’s suitably sterile set, Dustin O’Neill’s evocative projections of catch phrases and video on the house façade at back, and Obadiah Eaves’ bold sound.
The events of Parlour Song occur during an uncommon six-week drought. It’s not giving up too much of the plot to reveal that its satisying ending features a rain shower. But in keeping with the play’s dark tenor, the water offers tenuous relief.