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When a play begins with one character instructing another to “step over the dead dog and turn left,” you know you’re going to be in for a bumpy ride. Such is the case with Philip Ridley‘s disturbing drama set in — what else? — a dystopian future. Straining mightily for shock value and somehow managing to be simultaneously intense and tedious, Mercury Fur is bound to leave audiences sharply divided.
The 2005 play being given its off-Broadway premiere by The New Group has engendered controversy since its original London production, which received notices ranging from raves to one critic’s assertion that Ridley was “turned on by his own sick fantasies.” The longstanding publisher of the playwright, whose previous works include The Pitchfork Disney and Tender Napalm, even refused to print the text.
It’s easy to see what all the fuss was and, presumably, will be about. Reminiscent of such shocking dystopian dramas as Sarah Kane‘s Blasted, the play is set in a run-down apartment in a ravaged New York City beset by violence and drugs, the latter taking the form of ingested hallucinogenic butterflies. There, 19-year-old Elliot (Zane Pais) and his kid brother Darren (Jack DiFalco) are preparing to host an evening which involves the torture and murder of a young Asian boy (Bradley Fong), dubbed the “Party Piece,” at the hands of their “Party Guest” (Peter Mark Kendall), a well-heeled Wall Street banker.
Joining in the depraved festivities are the transsexual Lola (Paul Iacono); an enthusiastic young neighbor, Naz (Tony Revolori); the evening’s apparent arranger, Spinx (Sea McHale); and a dotty blind woman known only as “The Duchess” (Emily Cass McDonnell). Shortly after arriving she declares, “I feel a song coming on!” and gives the disquieting champagne toast, “To roses and nuclear weapons!”
Although the first half of its uninterrupted two-hour running time is consumed with meandering, profane banter, the play gathers intensity with the arrival of the party guest, shaking with excitement since it’s “not every day the wildest f—ing fantasy of your whole f—ing life comes true.” Quickly changing into camouflage gear to indulge an apparent Vietnam fixation, he plans to dispatch his victim with a meat hook while being filmed for his future amusement. But he’s dismayed when the young boy, who’s been fed copious amounts of beer to quench his thirst, seems a little too out of it.
“I want him to really feel what’s going on,” the psycho complains.
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For all its deliberate attempts at provocation, the play feels far too familiar and studied to have the desired effect. Audiences have been down this road before with any number of similarly themed literary, theatrical and cinematic predecessors, and the ill-defined characterizations — the bizarre Duchess seems to have stepped out of a Samuel Beckett play — and vague situations (what’s the story with those butterflies, anyway?) are more baffling than disturbing.
There’s certainly no fault to be found with director Scott Elliott‘s immersive production, with the audience seated so close to the action that sickening feelings of both voyeurism and complicity are vividly induced. The brutal violence is staged with such visceral realism that you begin to feel concern for the actors, particularly the young boy playing the hapless victim. The performances by the youthful ensemble are equally compelling, with McHale’s charismatic turn as the vicious Spinx a particular standout.
But by the time the nihilistic proceedings reach their apocalyptic conclusion, powerfully rendered via startling sound and lighting effects, weariness has long since set in. This is a vision of the not-so-distant future that’s as relentlessly monotonous as it is bleak.
Cast: Jack DiFalco, Bradley Fong, Paul Iacono, Peter Mark Kendall, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sea McHale, Zane Pais, Tony Revolori
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by the New Group
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