Societies don’t come much more dystopian than that of Philip Ridley’s brutal and Darwinian Mercury Fur. In this vision of the future, staged in traverse by Scott Elliott for The New Group, Ridley posits a world—specifically New York—in the grip of post-apocalyptic violence. Zoo animals have been gunned down in their cages, riots fill the streets, and drugs are plentiful.
Lanky Elliot (Zane Pais) and his dim-witted brother Darren (Jack DiFalco) have been sent to prepare a derelict apartment for a party; they are rearranging overturned, tattered furniture—though even “tattered” seems too stylish a description for the squalor designed by Derek McLane. Bits of white plaster and black chunks are strewn over the floor; the furniture is worn with holes, and graffiti is on the windows.
The preparations are clandestine, and Elliot and Darren are skittish. They are thrown when they discover that one of the apartments in the abandoned building is occupied, by Naz (Tony Revolori, who played the bellboy in the film The Grand Budapest Hotel). Naz has met Elliot, who at one time was known as “butterfly man in the ice cream truck.” Naz traded an artifact he had looted from the Met for some of Elliot’s drugs, peddled in the form of butterflies—and everyone uses them.
Naz is impressed to hear that Elliot and Darren are working for Papa Spinx, a legendary power broker. Darren pleads with Elliot to let the gentle Naz stay and help them. Elliot reluctantly agrees, but such is the sense of dread, fear, and jangled nerves that director Elliott creates that a tense viewer may want to yell, “Get out of there!”
Yet, other characters soon arrive. They include Lola (Paul Iacono), a drag queen who is Elliot’s lover and has been enlisted to prepare a young Asian boy, known as the Party Piece—for the upcoming event. But things don’t go as planned. The Party Guest has pushed up the date and yet is running late. The light is fading, so that Spinx may have trouble filming. (Splendid work by Jeff Croiter encompasses flashlights and candles, fire and dawn.)
When the gruff Spinx (Sea McHale) arrives, he has with him a blind woman dressed in a ball gown and known as the Duchess. Emily Cass McDonnell invests her with delusion and vulnerability that recall a Tennessee Williams character; a highlight is her attempt to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music. (Ironically, Darren earlier recalls a memory of the movie his parents loved—about mountains and “do-re-mi.” But that unalloyed symbol of the triumph of good is a barely perceptible memory.)
Last to arrive is the Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall), who has promised Spinx a good deal of money to stage a gruesome fantasy of his. Elliot, the most intelligent of the characters, is going along with Spinx only because he has to protect Darren and Lola. Elliot alone remembers history. He reads and he knows the past. “His brains are like the guts of a great white shark,” says Darren, who tells Naz, in a ghoulishly comic yet repellently vulgar rendering, the story of John F. Kennedy and his assassination, but mixes Marilyn Monroe and Hitler into the mangled history.
But, it turns out, Darren’s memory was induced by eating a butterfly, which Elliot presses him to describe. “What did it do to you?” Elliot asks. “Famous people … political leaders … killing them,” Darren answers. And Elliot divines, “Assassination. You ate a red with silver stripes.”
Mercury Fur is strong medicine. Although Ridley has a way with dialogue and description, it’s hard to judge whether his play merely wallows in depravity or is a legitimate assessment of mankind’s capacity for evil. Perhaps it’s so disturbing because the behavior of his characters leaves no doubt that any shred of decency will soon be utter moral desolation.
The New Group production of Mercury Fur plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St. between 10th and 11th Aves. in Manhattan) through Sept. 27. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit TheNewGroup.org or TicketCentral.com.