Monday, March 10, 2008

Empty Parlour

Parlour Song
Written by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Neil Pepe
Starring Chris Bauer, Jonathan Cake, Emily Mortimer

Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street
Performances February 15–March 29, 2008

Cake and Mortimer in Parlour Song (photo: Doug Hamilton)
In Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song, an overweight demolitions expert named Ned (Chris Bauer) confides to his friend Dale (Jonathan Cake) that he believes his wife, Joy (Emily Mortimer), is not cheating on him physically but is cheating him out of his possessions: cuff links, lawn mower, tandem bicycle, even a heavy stone bird bath have gone missing.

Between exercise bouts with the buff Dale and bedtime games of Scrabble with Joy, the distraught Ned is unable to find out who’s pinching his mysteriously disappearing stuff. His emotional collapse is aggravated by insomnia and his frequent trips away from home on various demolition jobs. What Joy actually does behind Ned’s back is easily guessed, especially since our narrator for this blatantly metaphorical journey into an imploding marriage is none other than Dale.

Parlour Song’s sundry symbols -- demolitions, thefts, Scrabble, exercise, insomnia, et al. -- fail to give heft and seriousness to a slight work. If Butterworth allowed these symbolic aspects to grow organically out of his characters’ interactions, the play might have made the grade; instead, he substitutes symbolism for any real, meaningful dramatic conflict. This becomes especially apparent in the climactic visual tableau, which shows what happened to the huge pile of possessions that disappeared right from under Ned’s nose.

That these characters remain ciphers is surely no fault of the actors, who give top-flight performances: Emily Mortimer makes a dazzling New York stage debut as the reticent Joy, Jonathan Cake is a persuasively animated Dale, and Chris Bauer -- the lone American in the cast -- is an immensely sympathetic Ned.

Neil Pepe’s direction shows an admirable ability to move his trio of actors around the set, which has been sparely designed by Robert Brill. The problem remains that, as Ned mentions in another context, Parlour Song calls to mind Scrabble’s famous blank tiles, and no amount of strained symbolism can fill in the blanks.

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