Sunday, April 24, 2011

Riotous Rylance

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem (photo by Simon Annand)
Written by Jez Butterworth
Starring Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, John Gallagher, Jr., Max Baker, Geraldine Hughes, Molly Ranson, Alan David, AimeƩ-Ffion Edwards, Danny Kirrane, Charlotte Mills, Sarah Moyle, Harvey Robinson, Barry Sloane, Aiden Eyrick, Mark Page
Directed by Ian Rickson

Previews began April 2, 2011
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street

William Blake’s 18th century poem Jerusalem, beloved by the English as a patriotic hymn since Hubert Parry set it to music during World War I, extols the eternal beauties of the mother country. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem ironically references that heavenly hymn in its satirical portrait of a 21st century England filled with disaffected souls not interested in a long-past bucolic era.

Butterworth plants at the center one Johnny “Rooster” Byron (his name a nod to another English poet), a middle-aged, modern-day pied piper whose “I don’t give a f++k” attitude permeates the play, which opens with a raucous late-night party at his trailer home at the edge of a forest. The next morning, on St. George’s Day, the local authorities arrive with an eviction notice: thanks to complaining affluent neighbors, he must vacate his messy premises by day’s end.

But since that day includes the local county fair, the previous evening’s debauchery is a mere prelude to more drinking and drugging: Johnny again parties with friends like Ginger, a wannabe DJ and longtime hanger-on, and teens like Lee, who intends to emigrate to Australia the next day, Davey, Pea and Tanya. There are also visits from the much older Professor, who’s given LSD; Wesley, the local pub owner dressed in his St. George’s Day dancing gear; Dawn, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and their young son Marky; and thuggish Troy, on the lookout for his daughter Phaedra, a teenage runaway who might be hiding out at Johnny’s place.

In this volcanic world of drunken and drugged teenagers and immature adults, Butterworth makes Johnny his poster boy, since he’s smarter, cleverer and more fun to be with than everybody else, and so gets the play’s best lines. By default, Johnny is the most likeable person in this draggy three-hour would-be epic, strange because he’s a drug dealer, alcoholic, compulsive liar and deadbeat father who may also be a statutory rapist.

That’s where Mark Rylance comes in. His Johnny is such a magnetic and blazingly original character that we root for him even though he’s little more than a gigantic failure arrogant enough to make others believe that he’s a success. Rylance treats Butterworth’s explosively profane dialogue as nothing less than a series of dazzlingly Shakespearean soliloquies, even if this playwright’s Falstaffian aspirations for Rooster never reach the heights of the Bard’s legendarily obese comic.

Rylance, whose commitment to the part is so total that you end up believing that he’s not just acting but is actually the amoral and carefree Rooster onstage, has such a way with words that he makes his lines far funnier than they have any right to be. Even silly, dated jokes about the Spice Girls and David Beckham sound devastatingly hilarious when they trip off Rylance’s tongue.

The cast, while obviously not up to Rylance’s inspired level, nevertheless complements the leading man superbly, led by Mackenzie Crook’s sleazily affable Ginger, John Gallagher Jr.’s amusingly lunatic Lee, Max Baker’s relatively sane Wesley, and Alan David’s endearingly daft Professor. The smaller female roles are nicely done by AimeĆ©-Ffion Edwards as Phaedra (showing off a lovely singing voice to open the first two acts with “Jerusalem“), Sarah Moyle, Molly Ranson, Charlotte Mills and Geraldine Hughes.

Ian Rickson directs this unwieldy, overlong play with as much discipline as possible under the circumstances, keeping things under a controlled sort of chaos on Ultz’s single set of Rooster’s splayed-out home. Although there is wit and invention in Butterworth’s Jerusalem, it’s sorely lacking in poetry and wisdom, which, despite the amazing Rylance, makes its three long hours a chore.

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