The New Group seems the perfect home for Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, its most recent foray into the dark, murky depths of in-yer-face theatre, the mostly British genre championed by Ridley alongside masters of the craft like Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill (and, more recently, Simon Stephens, Laura Wade, and others), which seeks not merely to entertain an audience but to provoke them with shocking and sometimes vulgar subject matter.
The New Group, which previously produced Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe, has more recently championed the work of Thomas Bradshaw, producing two of his most recent plays, the time-twisting Burning in 2011 and amateur porn comedy Intimacy in 2014, each shocking (and excellent) in its own provocative way.
So it seems that the company has prepared its audiences for the post-apocalyptic world of Mercury Fur, which is set in a dilapidated apartment building at an unspecified time in the future, when brightly-colored butterflies have become the hallucinatory drug of choice and, oddly, The Sound of Music has become a cultural touchstone, referenced by several of the play’s characters.
The play’s plot is fairly simple. Butterfly dealer Elliot (Zane Pais) and his younger brother Darren (Jack DiFalco) are planning a special party in a messy abandoned apartment building of their choosing. The party is being thrown at the behest of Spinx (Sea McHale), a kind of gang leader whose buyers are (without giving too much away) thrill-seekers. The two prepare for the party with the help of their gender-fluid friend Lola (Paul Iacono, excellent and spunky) and Naz (Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori), a past customer of Elliot’s who lives down the hall. Their mysterious conversation establishes the rules of their world, a place where violence is a kind of commodity and butterflies are coveted and potent.
Scenic designer Derek McLane sets the bar for the production high; his hyper-realistic set is so grungy, strewn with mess and covered in graffiti, that it’s hard not to expect a thrill ride of a stunner from Ridley’s text. So it’s somewhat disappointing to find that style, for the most part, trumps substance here despite the best attempts of an uneven but game cast and Scott Elliott’s effective direction.
It would be cruel to point out the individual weak spots amongst the cast; this band of young actors are just getting their feet wet (several are making their off-Broadway debuts), and they seem to be trying incredibly hard to pick up on the rhythms of Ridley’s twisty-turny play, which is admittedly a tough nut to crack. Some of the actors, though, have a better handle than others when it comes to the back-and-forth volley of the play’s dialogue, which relies on its seduction of an audience for its sporadic moments of real tension. Just what kind of a party is being thrown? Who is Spinx? What or who is a “party piece?” Who is this party guest? It’s these questions and others that keep the production crackling as much as it does.
Ridley does bring us answers to these riddles, but his play too often paints with too-broad brushstrokes. The most skillful practitioners of in-yer-face theatre find ways to portray bold, sometimes bloody actions in service of cohesive overarching themes; Mark Ravenhill is a master in this regard. Ridley’s work here seems too satisfied by its own edginess to find much of a central message. The play’s bleak setting brings questions of morality to the forefront by virtue of the ticking clock of the play’s climatic party, and there are themes that emerge to a degree – especially the coexistence and codependence of love and hurt, which Ridley could have emphasized to greater effect.
Despite its deficits though, Mercury Fur isn’t without its pleasures, Revolori’s New York stage debut, which finds him at home within the play’s emotionally taxing world, not least among them. Within the cast, his is the wide-eyed, expressive performance that best captures not just the aggression of the world of the play but the desperation – and futility – its inhabitants face.