Tender Napalm, directed by David Norwood, is a postmodern love/hate story that examines the lines between fantasy and reality. When the play opens, a man (Amara James Aja) and a woman (Ayana Major Bey), face off and speak to each other in poetic language, filled with violent imagery and sexual innuendos. The abstract and poetic language, coupled with the nonlinear narrative, gives the play a surreal feel.
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.
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.