Tonight/Jungle — Two Plays by Philip Ridley
Two solo one-acts examine the anatomy of a mental breakdown.
Last August, the New Group's production of Philip Ridley's 2005 play Mercury Fur seriously disturbed off-Broadway audiences with its apocalyptic vision of a city run by gangs who hold parties for people who like to torture children. Two newer plays by Ridley, both of them solo one-acts making their New York premieres in a double bill titled Tonight/Jungle, are running in rep downtown at HERE with somewhat-less-queasy subject matter. But they're no less gut-bustingly intense due to two ferociously good performances.
In Tonight With Donny Stixx, Harry Farmer plays Donny, a young man who grows up with a mentally ill mother and a distant father. Donny has dreams of becoming a magician and starring in his own TV show. Trouble is, Donny's not as good at magic as he thinks he is. When he performs at a shopping mall, the audience takes videos of him and posts them to YouTube with derisive comments. When he discovers that he has become a laughing stock, the unhinged Donny decides that the next time someone makes a video of his performance, no one's going to be laughing.
Dark Vanilla Jungle examines a different side of personality collapse. Robyn Kerr plays Andrea, a young woman who longs for a normal, secure home. Instead Andrea goes to live with Mrs. Vye, whom she detests. While out one night with a friend, Andrea meets Tyron, who quickly charms her — then turns her into a sexual bauble for him and his friends. Having subjugated herself completely to him, she finds out that Tyron already has a wife, sending Andrea into a paroxysm of despair and rage. When she visits Mrs. Vye in the hospital and comes across multiple amputee Glenn, she believes that he must be the father of her unborn child, and she will do anything to keep him in her life.
Farmer and Kerr both deliver visceral, breathtaking portrayals of Donny's and Andrea's tortured psyches. Dante Olivia Smith's ingenious lighting, a background of 28 floods, clue us in to changes in the characters' psychological states, intensifying Donny's terrifying rants and Andrea's spiraling descent into madness. Donny and Andrea never seem to stop moving, even when they pause for a moment in their confessionals to jab a finger in the direction of an audience member: "What's your name, my friend?" Donny asks someone in the front row. Ridley is good at nudging audiences out of their comfort zones.
Frances Loy, who directs Tonight, and Paul Takacs, who directs Jungle, both create an atmosphere that makes us feel less like audience members and more like jurors. Though Kerr infuses her performance with more humor than Farmer does, both plays ultimately show how easily the ugly modern world around us can slash through the psyches of those who aren't quite equipped to handle its pressures — and how ill-equipped we are to judge them.