EmptyAtlantic Theater Company, New York
Through March 29
The artwork for "Parlour Song" depicts a bomb detonator with its plunger ready to be pushed. Sure enough, video projections of building explosions open the show. What follows, however, is a long, elongated fizzle.
That's surprising, chiefly because playwright Jez Butterworth's previous works -- "Mojo" (which he later adapted into a film) and "The Night Heron" -- showed considerable promise despite their flaws. This time around, Butterworth's rambling dialogue and obvious metaphors offer little payoff.
The English suburb-set drama revolves around three fortysomethings, two of whom are slogging their way through an increasingly strained marriage. In fact, the schlumpy Ned (Chris Bauer) thinks sexy wife Joy (Emily Mortimer) is slowly stealing him blind, as everything from expensive cuff links to a prized lawn mower suddenly go missing. Ned, a demolitions expert, escapes from his problems with a grueling regimen of physical exercise overseen by his hunky next-door neighbor, Dale (Jonathan Cake).
Anyone with a double-digit IQ will see where this is headed, even without Dale's running commentary, and won't be particularly impressed as the subplot about theft comes to symbolize betrayal in the marital bed. Attempts at humor are equally clumsy, whether watching the pudgy Ned struggle with crunches or clumsily follow a sex manual's explicit instructions.
Neil Pepe, who directed both of Butterworth's previous works, here fails to establish a sense of escalating tension, which might have given resonance to the production's denouement. Instead, he seems to have focused more on the benefits of Robert Brill's sparse set or Kenneth Posner's dramatic lighting to create tone and mood. But the result is less than compelling.
Any energy associated with the production comes directly from its three actors. Aside from the exhausting physical workouts that Bauer and Cake enact with aplomb, both inject passion and nuance into the testosterone-fueled friendship of Ned and Dale. Cake's natural charisma and Bauer's ability to project vulnerability give the characters far more dimension than the script provides.
Mortimer, who has proved a critical darling in film and TV work ranging from "Lovely and Amazing" and "Lars and the Real Girl" to "30 Rock," exhibits yeoman's service in her American stage debut. Her varied line readings, conflicting body language and ability to underplay transform Joy from spoiled sex kitten to a troubled and troubling heroine. One never tires of watching her.
But one can't say the same of "Parlour Song," which hits far too many wrong notes to sustain its verbal rhythms.
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Director: Neil Pepe
Set designer: Robert Brill
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Ned: Chris Bauer
Dale: Jonathan Cake
Joy: Emily Mortimer