In his 2005 Mercury Fur, being given its belated Off Broadway premiere by The New Group under the direction of its intrepid artistic director Scott Elliott, there has been a complete breakdown of society: gangs roam the city and kill and destroy in supermarkets and museums, while the population is addicted to hallucinogenic butterflies. The one redeeming factor: people will still go to any lengths to save the ones they love. However, Mercury Fur is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted: Ridley’s original publisher refused to publish the text.
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center has been completely reconstructed to become a boarded-up apartment in a derelict building somewhere in Manhattan. After walking though graffitied hallways, the audience sits in car seats and assorted chairs on all four sides (two on balconies) of the playing area, close enough to feel as though they are in the living room with the actors, which makes leaving during the performance difficult.
Originally set in London’s East End, the play’s British slang and place names have been revised to accommodate its American audience but it tells the same story. The play is uncompromising, shocking and powerful. However, at two hours plus with no intermission and told in real time, it is also too long and convoluted to be completely successful. However, the youthful cast (who must be getting a workout every night) are not only believable but proficient in this world that is yet to come.
In total darkness, 19-year-old Elliot and his 16-year-old brother Darren arrive with flashlights seeking a location for a party. They work for Spinx, a 21-year-old who arranges customized events for wealthy clients which allow them to live out their wildest fantasies without fear of reprisal. In this post-apocalyptic world, Elliot is famous as the man in the ice cream truck who sells the hallucinogenic butterflies, though he does not take them himself. Although he allows Darren to help him with the parties, the younger brother is addicted to this new drug of choice which wipes out a person’s memories. The youth of this future cannot remember the way the world used to be.
While Elliot pulls the boards off the windows and Darren cleans up the derelict apartment, Darren insists that Elliot retell him stories from their pasts that only Elliot can remember. They are interrupted by Naz, a 15-year-old boy living on his own elsewhere in this building. He recognizes the butterfly salesman, but Elliot is disturbed to have a witness to what will go down. They are awaiting Lola, a transvestite and Spinx’s sister, a hairstylist and makeup artist, as well as the Party Piece, a ten-year-old boy who has been kept in a closet to await the Party Guest’s pleasure. When Spinx brings the Duchess, a 38-year-old blind woman, who lives in a world of the past, everything seems to be spinning out of control. Several of these characters seem to be more closely related than they let on. Then the Party Guest arrives, a 23-year-old Wall Street type, with a very warped sense of fun, in a hurry to live out his fantasy.
While there is an ominous sense of doom building throughout the play, Ridley spends the first hour setting up the situation and the backstory, which seems to go on too long. Ultimately, the tension reaches a fever pitch in the last half hour when it is revealed what the scenario is that the Party Guest wants to play out. Mercury Fur calls into question what we are willing to do to ensure our own survival. Sitting within feet of the playing area, the audience is both pulled into the action and made an accomplice to the events which turn horrific. The end of the play also has some additional surprises not foreseen – even when the reason for the party is revealed. The author implies that this is what the world will look like under anarchy when all rules we live by are gone.
Aside from the Duchess who is an ironic comment on a generation who does not want to look facts squarely in the face but prefers to live in the past, the rest of the mainly unfamiliar cast play characters under age 23, and appear to be living their futuristic roles. As the two fraternal protagonists, Zane Pais as Elliot is cool and efficient, while Jack DiFalco’s Darren is questioning and edgy, but muddled by all the butterflies he has taken. Tony Revolori’s Naz is the naïve bystander who asks too many questions for his own good.
Paul Iacono as the androgynous Lola is capable but sensitive, refusing to stay when it is time for the party to begin. Sea McHale’s Spinx, though the brutal leader of this gang, is obviously desperate as something serious is eating him up. As the only female character, Emily Cass McDonnell as the Duchess, dressed in a pink ball gown and a white stole, is amusing as someone who misreads all of the signs of her current reality and lives in a world of her own making. Peter Mark Kendall as the Party Guest is a frightening portrait of entitlement pushed to its limit.
Whatever you think of the play, the production team has performed a superb job of putting the audience in a dystopian New York of a depressingly possible tomorrow.
Derek McLane is the talent behind the remarkable set and venue that creates this disturbing world of the future, while Jeff Croiter has brilliantly lit it – from flashlights, to flaming sunlight, to colorful sunset, to candles. The costumes by Susan Hilferty make it look like teenagers will always gravitate to the same kind of clothes we see today. The sound design which includes all of the off-stage noises from the street below to the other rooms in the apartment is the work of M.L. Dogg. The fight direction credited to UnkleDave’s Fight-House could not be more real. Jeremy Chernick is responsible for the special effects design of which there are several by the end.
Mercury Fur is powerful yet wearying, brutal yet predicable, horrifying yet an extension of recent film dystopias. Playwright Philip Ridley is uncompromising and ferocious. His play is not for everyone, yet it is intensely theatrical and provocative. How will our youth behave in a world with no rules and no memories? Producer/director Scott Elliott has chosen an outstanding cast and production team to bring this violent and savage story to life.
Mercury Fur (through September 27, 2015)
The New Group
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with no intermission