Spectator violence and psychedelic butterflies presage New York's destruction in Philip Ridley's disturbing play.
It's rare that a theatrical piece has the power to create real visceral dread and stomach-churning queasiness so compellingly and unapologetically. The New Group's chilling production of Philip Ridley's nightmarish 2005 play Mercury Fur does just that. Artistic director Scott Elliott guides an extraordinary cast of young actors in a blazingly paced two hours (no intermission) filled with bizarre characters, unsettling imagery, and bloody violence. This is A Clockwork Orange on steroids.
In a dilapidated room in an abandoned building somewhere in a dystopian New York City, brothers Darren (Jack DiFalco) and Elliot (Zane Pais) are setting up for a party with a very dark theme. The city is populated by gangs who commit gruesome murders and by citizens who are addicted to hallucinogenic butterflies. Homeless Naz (Tony Revolori) shows up and helps Elliot's transgender girlfriend, Lola (Paul Iacono), prepare a child, known as Party Piece (Bradley Fong), for a wealthy Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall) to torture. That's the fantasy the butterflies can't satisfy for him.
The party plans go awry when gang kingpin Spinx (Sea McHale) unexpectedly arrives with his blind girlfriend, the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell), who shows maternal affection for the child. As the sun sets and the light fades, the party veers violently off track, and the brothers are forced to confront their own warring impulses of self-preservation and fraternal affection, and decide what they're willing to do to save each other from destruction.
It's horrifying enough to depict the assault and murder of old men, as Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick did in Clockwork; to make the victim of violence a child is another turn of the screw. Ridley originally set his play in London's East End, but in its off-Broadway premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center, he has shifted the scene to New York, which seems just as likely a candidate as any big city to collapse under the weight of anomie. The play disturbed enough people in its initial runs at the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, England, and at London's Menier Chocolate Factory to make Ridley's publisher refuse to print it.
Ten years later, Mercury Fur resonates with an eerie familiarity, and thanks to the fine performances in this production, it packs a real punch. Among the ensemble, DiFalco and Pais radiate extraordinary energy from the first scene to the heart-pounding climax, and all the other actors follow suit. McDonnell deserves special mention, playing the blind Duchess (the play's most satirical and symbolic character) with exquisite pathetic humor. Sporting wide-lens sunglasses and a preposterously elegant gown, Duchess coos plaintively for Spinx, her "Papa," all while remaining blind to the horrors occurring around her. She's the mirror Ridley holds up to us, and McDonnell reflects it well.
Reinforcing the chaotic feel of the action is Derek McLane's set, which some of the audience must walk across to get to their seats of mismatched chairs and sofas. McLane has built a mind-bogglingly detailed crack den of a room, with exposed crumbling drywall, shabby furniture in disarray, and garbage, dust, and decay everywhere. You can almost smell the mold. Jeff Croiter's lighting is a master class in menacing shadows and sunsets, from the opening, in which the audience is plunged into darkness lit only by a flashlight, to the terrifying candlelight of the final scenes. In addition to the Duchess' Miss Havisham-chic gown, Susan Hilferty's costumes are culled from familiar urban-teen wardrobes, yet in the play's context they seem like evidence of society's disintegration. Jeans and hoodies never looked so apocalyptic.
The premise of Mercury Fur may give some theatergoers pause, but this production is unquestionably a raw, provocative, unforgettable theatrical experience worth seeing. If it sounds too perverse and disturbing, think of successful films like The Hunger Games, whose theme is the entertainment value to be found in teenagers hunting down and killing one another. Ridley's sense of entertainment in the future wasn't far off the mark.