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Theatre in Review: Radiant Vermin (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Scarlett Alice Johnson, Debra Baker, Sean Michael Verey. Photo: Carol Rosegg

When the characters in a Philip Ridley play enter and frankly admit that they've done something "horrible" to obtain their dream house, one instinctively reaches to fasten one's seat belt. Ridley's last New York production, Mercury Fur, set in a city of the dystopian future, was determined to rub the audience's collective face in every possible form of depravity. In contrast, Radiant Vermin is a witty, if overextended, black comic sketch that makes its hair-raising points in a much more engaging way. Hypocrisy is the theme here: The bright-eyed young British couple who narrate their own story commit the most horrific crimes -- but, after all, they only did it all for baby.

Jill and Ollie are the sweetest, blandest, most inoffensive pair you could imagine; they are also poor, which means they are stuck living in a depressing place known as Red Ocean Estate. "Saw the documentary on telly, did you?" asks Ollie. "Crime capital of the universe and all that." He adds, rather offended, "Honestly, you'd think everyone on the estate was either a drug dealer or suicidal. True, the Russian family that gassed themselves were drug dealers, but to spend half the program on that single event was misleading in the extreme, if you want my opinion." (Even a kinder, gentler Philip Ridley play is filled with jokes designed to take the paint off the walls.)

Escape comes in the form of a letter from a new government program known as the Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes. This leads to a meeting with the satanically self-assured Miss Dee, who is eerily well-informed about Jill and Ollie. ("Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows," she pronounces, enigmatically.) She informs Jill and Ollie that they have been chosen to receive a new home for free; true, it's a daunting fixer-upper -- Ollie calls it "Chernobyl chic" -- in a godforsaken development. (Their street is ironically named Gilead Close.) But it is theirs, and, as Miss Dee explains, the idea is that, as they restore their home, others will move in and follow suit, turning the neighborhood into a showplace.

Partly because Jill is pregnant and they are desperately in need of a fresh start, she and Ollie sign on the dotted line. Still, they can't help but notice the nearby bonfires started by groups of homeless people. When Ollie catches one of them in the kitchen, a fight ensues, and he accidentally kills the poor fellow. What happens next is straight out of The Twilight Zone: A searchlight appears and the body disappears, and the kitchen is transformed into a showplace right out of the catalog published by Selfridges -- Jill's favorite store. Ollie puts two and two together right away; Jill, baffled, says, "What are you saying, Ollie? You killed a vagrant and he's been reincarnated as a designer kitchen?"

Well, yes. And it's not long before Ollie and Jill have been transformed into a kind of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, with the result not being meat pies but chic bedroom sets and living room ensembles. Ollie, who holds on to the vestiges of a conscience, announces he has "been trying to solve the problem of humane home renovation," devising a method of electrocution that kills the "renovators" quickly and painlessly. One problem: The body has to vanish from the room selected to be improved, so a certain amount of dragging of bodies is necessary; also, rooms can be renovated more than once. "Hence the umpteen attempts at the nursery," Jill adds.

By the time other homeowners flood the area, Jill and Ollie, having successfully suppressed any sense of guilt, have worked out a fail-safe plan: Ollie, dressed as a vicar, brings a vagrant back to the house, ostensibly for a bath and a meal, but really to jump-start another redecoration. And, in order to keep up with the Joneses, they begin to devise a way to kill six renovators at once, electrocuting them in the bathtub. ("It will have to be a same-sex renovation," says Ollie, fastidiously.) Nevertheless, both Jill and Ollie have somatic experiences of remorse -- in Ollie's case, a giant meltdown at a neighborhood barbecue that leaves them dreadfully exposed in front of their friends. This sequence, in which Scarlett Alice Johnson, as Jill, and Sean Michael Verey, as Ollie, frantically impersonate all of their guests is terribly clever and is also allowed to go on about five minutes too long. Picking himself up off the floor, Ollie cracks, "A bit too much Meisner technique there." I'm inclined to agree.

The rest of the time, however, Johnson and Verey have the knack of creating a pair of cartoon figures who are just enough like real people to make them impossible to dismiss. "Christian values; that's what I practice," preens Johnson, only to launch into a scathing takedown of the homeless. Her assent to mass murder is done with the most fetching smile, accompanied by a glint in her eye. Verey greets each new homicidal innovation with a look of mad-scientist glee; he also turns the first killing into a nifty bit of slapstick. Debra Baker is as slick as vinyl as the unmistakably sinister Miss Dee. The director, David Mercatali, has found exactly the right satirical tone, allowing us to be horrified yet eager to know which new atrocities are around the corner.

The entire design is credited to William Reynolds, whose set is a simple white environment not unlike the panel of a comic strip. His basic white lighting scheme is accompanied by three overhead fluorescent units that flicker when murder is in the air, and he also creates a hellish orange glow when the moment calls for it. Each character's costume is dominated by bright colors, adding to the cartoon feeling. The sound design includes a preshow playlist of such apropos pop tunes as "Our House," by Madness, and "Material Girl," by Madonna.

Radiant Vermin -- the title refers to the array of fairy lights that appear on each dead body just before it disappears -- makes its points early and often, but Jill and Ollie make a fine pair of unreliable narrators, and their tale is presented with considerable verve and wit, right up to the moment that Miss Dee reappears to renegotiate their contract on especially hair-raising terms. In a city with a homeless problem as bad as New York's, it's impossible not to feel the sting. -- David Barbour

(8 June 2016)

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