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Parlour Song

Jez Butterworth's predictable-yet-intriguing play about a romantic triangle gets a sleek production at the Atlantic. logo
Jonathan Cake and Emily Mortimer
in Parlour Song
(© Doug Hamilton)
In the program for Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song, now being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company in Neil Pepe's sleek production, I immediately noticed the phrase, "England, in the late Summer, Autumn/In and around the small suburban new-built home of Ned and Joy," above a cast list indicating that in addition to Ned (Chris Bauer) and Joy (Emily Mortimer), there's only one other character, Dale (Jonathan Cake).

Then I took note of Robert Brill's triangular sofa, dining-table, queen-sized bed set. So it didn't take much foresight to realize the work would likely be about a relationship triangle in which a husband and wife in marital conflict are visited by a man who causes further ruptures in their union. Fortunately, Butterworth mitigates the predictability of the situation, which indeed comes to pass, with enough intriguing variations to make it worth sitting attentively until the more or less expected ending arrives.

From the outset, demolition engineer Ned and his lissome and mysterious wife don't seem to be enjoying a trouble-free domestic paradise, although at first he seems less aware of a growing distance between them than she seems to be. What Ned does know is that many of the vintage collectibles he's amassed over the years have been disappearing. Much of this worrying news is spilled during calisthenics sessions through which the very fit Dale is guiding the overweight Ned and throughout which Ned's anxiety mounts. He's especially thrown by a recurring dream so disorienting that he refuses to describe it to Dale.

As items continue to vanish -- including a heavy birdbath gone missing from the couple's padlocked garden -- the curiously taciturn Joy begins to loom as the most likely suspect. She becomes more implicated in the mounting thefts when she and Dale play an extremely torrid bedroom scene that few in the audience won't imagine is on the way, although many observers will not expect the explicit body English that Joy employs to rivet Dale's full attention. (Sharon Stone, eat your heart out.) The infidelity leads to a denouement that isn't a huge shock to ticket buyers conversant with Harold Pinter's Betrayal or Edith Wharton's searing novel Ethan Frome.

Not the least of the production's pluses are the performances. Cake, so patrician recently in the Lincoln Center Cymbeline, goes downscale as a member of the middle class who's all body image and cocky outlook. Yet, he does so with enough ingratiating mannerisms to take the edge off Dale's sleazy behavior. Bauer's Ned is increasingly flummoxed in just the right increments, and the actor is braver than some might be in exhibiting the less-than-ripped physique Butterworth has called for in the role. Mortimer -- gliding around in stiletto heels and shape-hugging outfits that costumer Sarah Edwards has come up with -- works a Mona Lisa smile, great legs, and seductive voice to commendable effect.

But what really keeps Parlour Song -- an ironic reference to a Victorian social amenity -- from quick dispatch to the been-there-seen-that bin is Butterworth's underlying intentions. It's no accident that Ned does what he does, namely, implodes old and even recent structures in various towns across the English landscape. It's just as deliberate that Ned spends time gathering reminders of a past that he's committed to obliterating -- and just as calculated that these objects also evanesce. Ultimately, Butterworth is bemoaning what's happening to today's England beyond the typical preserved tourist destinations. Ned, Joy, and Dale are his emblems of the societal malaise that occurs when what a people has long proudly held on to is literally reduced to dust. If that isn't a message that deserves to be heard, what is?

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