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Theatre in Review: Mercury Fur (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

Paul Iacono, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni

I'll say one thing about Mercury Fur: Nobody involved in it is trying to sugarcoat the pill of Philip Ridley's hard-boiled drama of survival at any price. The whole of the Linney Courtyard Theatre has been transformed by the set designer, Derek McLane, into the filthy, crumbling interior of an abandoned, bombed-out apartment. If a room can be said to look diseased, this is it -- complete with shredded wallpaper, graffiti, mold, and overturned, beaten-up pieces of furniture. Lying on the floor is a street sign for Oriental Blvd., a clue suggesting that we are somewhere in Brooklyn; more accurately, we have entered the ninth circle of hell.

This particular location is not some remote slum or abandoned lot. The social order has suffered an irreparable breakdown, leaving people to fend for themselves in a Hobbesian nightmare. Among other things, we learn that Lincoln Center is in flames, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been looted, people are living in burned-out cars on Waverly Place, and Rwanda-style machete killings are taking place in the aisles of local grocery stores. Oddly, no one seems to have a clear memory of the past before such atrocities became a daily reality. There was a "sandstorm" -- a nuclear blast? -- that seems to have preceded the chaos. Also, many of the characters partake of "butterfly wings," which induce powerful, usually grotesquely violent fantasies -- of, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- that often result in sexual climax.

The action begins with an abrupt blackout, leaving us in the dark for what seems like an eternity. Finally, the space is invaded by Darren and Elliot, brothers who are attached to a gang leader of sorts named Spinx. They are commandeering the space for a "party," their code word for an unspeakable form of entertainment offered to clients who can pay the steep fee. It involves a "Party Piece," in this case a young Asian boy, who, as the play begins, is unconscious. He is to be tied up in the adjoining room while the client assumes a fantasy role -- he opts for a US soldier in the Vietnam War -- and is outfitted with a bag of tools, including a meat hook. You can imagine the rest yourself -- or not.

Only the most depraved survive in Mercury Fur -- along with those who are willing to service them. Spinx plans the parties, and Darren and Elliot facilitate them with an assist from Lola, Spinx's "sister" -- really a young man in a denim skirt and red paisley halter top, who designs the costumes. Elliot and Lola are lovers; the only heterosexual male in the crowd is Spinx; he is deeply devoted to Duchess, a pretty, fragile young lady who is blind and subject to panic attacks. Spinx tenderly, if not entirely honestly, looks after Duchess, who is dressed in an evening gown made of layers of pink taffeta and a white stole; for example, he tells her that they are residing in a "magnificent palace." If left alone for even a few minutes, she will panic and soil herself.

The action of Mercury Fur centers on the party and how it unravels, a situation that turns perilously urgent when it becomes clear that some kind of decisive military action against the city is imminent. It's a deluxe chamber of horrors designed to test how far the characters will debase themselves in the interest of self-preservation, culminating in a blood-drenched climax that leaves little hope for the future. Every attempt has been made to shock the audience senseless. The dialogue is peppered with obscenities and laced with casual brutalities; Elliot, complaining about Darren's laziness, says, "I've seen gang-raped toddlers act with more alacrity." (He's probably not using a metaphor.) There is a description, in grisly detail, of the rape of a mutilated corpse. We are told that young people are getting together for suicide parties. "Twenty were found in a club a few days ago," says Elliot. "The place was like an abattoir, so they say..."

And yet, while Mercury Fur, which has been tautly directed by Scott Elliott, is never dull, one watches with a kind of detachment that is surely the opposite of the playwright's intention. Simply put, the play tries too hard; Ridley piles on enough atrocities for a festival of Jacobean dramas, to the point they cancel each other out. You can only be told about so many disembodied corpses before your mind starts to wander. According to a recent New York Times profile, Ridley lost several friends over this script and his regular publisher refused to have anything to do with it. Seeing this production, it's hard to believe anyone took for it anything more than a serious case of authorial overkill, a too-calculated series of atrocities that ultimately call attention to the artificiality of the entire enterprise.

Even more damaging is the careless way it has been assembled: The city has supposedly been reduced to rubble, yet everyone's cell phone works, it's still possible to pick up several six-packs of beer, and the Spinx's client is a nattily dressed Wall Street trader. Such key details as that sandstorm and those hallucinogenic butterflies are never really elucidated. It's a generic feel-bad Armageddon, the terms of which have been too fuzzily imagined to have any real effect. (It doesn't help that this English play has been transposed to a New York setting without completely eradicating a number of British locutions in the dialogue.)

If you must see Mercury Fur, at least you will make the acquaintance of an exceptionally gifted company of actors. Jack DiFalco's Darren is a convincing case of damaged goods, his cognitive abilities addled by episodes of abuse and too many butterfly wings; he plays beautifully with Zane Pais' Elliot, the take-charge brother, who keeps trying to exert control over a wildly unstable situation. (Pais' line readings sometimes recall Jesse Eisenberg's a bit too much for his own good, but he is clearly a talent to watch.) Paul Iacono captures Lola's self-disgust at taking part in such degrading activities, as well as her loyalty to Spinx and Elliot. Tony Revolori, well-known for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, is effective as a street kid who wanders into this ménage , thinking he has at last found a home. Sea McHale brings a natural sense of authority to the role of Spinx. Emily Cass McDonnell is an attention-getter as Duchess, one of the most bizarre characters to grace a stage this season. Peter Mark Kendall is suitably creepy as Spinx's client, who visibly trembles at the prospect of a good evening's flaying.

In addition to McLane's brilliantly realized set, which, more than any other element, helps to ground the script in some kind of reality, Jeff Croiter's superb lighting, representing dying afternoon sunlight, is extremely helpful in setting the right skin-crawling mood. (This is the second play I've seen this week -- the other is John, also at Pershing Square Signature Center -- in which the lighting designer has had to work with remarkably low light levels; both designers ace this demanding test with ease.) Susan Hilferty's costumes range from well-chosen casual wear to Duchess' weird princess getup and the gold lamé Elvis costume (don't ask) chosen for the Party Piece; if everyone seems awfully neat and clean considering their circumstances, blame the play rather than the designer. M. L. Dogg's sound design includes a number of street-related effects, such as car horns and planes overhead.

In the end, Mercury Fur feels like a series of shocks in search of a purpose. (In many ways, it resembles Adam Rapp's equally lurid thriller, Through the Yellow Hour, another drama in which New York has gone to hell in a handbasket.) By the time it reaches its apocalyptic climax, linking the words "I love you" with attempted murder, you are likely to feel fatigued rather than riven with horror. That can't be what Ridley had in mind. -- David Barbour

(19 August 2015)

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