Dystopian visions are bubbling up with regularity on New York stages. That’s no shocker in our age of extreme climate change scenarios, Islamic State atrocities, and the despicable moral crimes of whatever political party is not yours. Often these plays are sad depictions of a world gone small, even quiet.
There’s nothing shy or shrunken about Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, whose Off-Broadway premiere Scott Elliott brilliantly directs at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This gruesome and disturbing futuristic nightmare combines giddy post-apocalyptic fantasy with wartime stress and violence. It zeroes in on a tiny band of survivors to immerse us in the world they live in.
That immersive feeling is due in no small part to Derek McLane’s wrecked-apartment set, which could merit a critical analysis of its own.
In a near-future New York City dominated by marauding rape-and-murder gangs and everyday unspeakable violence, a new narco-hallucinogen keeps survivors in giddy states of forgetfulness. A drug dealer and his half-out-of-it younger brother break into a dark, trashed apartment scrawled all over with graffiti and full of overturned furniture and assorted junk.
We’ve seen the set before the play begins (half of us have walked through it to get to our seats). But its gradual illumination is still a revelation as Elliot (Zane Pais) and Darren (Jack DiFalco) work, chattering and arguing all the while, to uncover the boarded-up windows and let the afternoon sunlight into the powered-down space (Jeff Croiter’s lighting is superb). They right the furniture, pick up the trash, and get things ready – but for what?
Slowly we learn why the emotionally raw young Darren has trouble remembering events of his childhood – and of last week (“Who are we?”); what Elliot does for a living; and finally what kind of “party” they’ve taken over the abandoned apartment to host. The one thing that happens fast is the conversation, with Elliot talking so quickly I missed quite a few of his lines. The cumulative effect during this opening scene is frustrating.
But it also makes clear how stressed Elliot is. And as the rest of the characters make their way to the apartment, the dynamics play out at a less frantic, if equally fraught, pace. Naz, a neighboring squatter, hears the noise and apprentices himself eagerly (if ignorantly) to the dark goings-on. Played by Tony Revolori with the same winning combination of innocence and knowingness that made the actor’s Lobby Boy in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel so memorable, Naz wears his heart on his sleeve as naturally as he carries his gun in his pocket.
Elliot’s cross-dressing girlfriend (an effectively tightly-wound Paul Iacono) arrives to help out with her special skills. The script plays with expectations as the boss of the operation (Sea McHale) turns up with an unexpected guest, a standard plot device but one that here, in this world of induced forgetfulness, doesn’t kick the action into gear in a standard way.
Instead the payoff arrives with the party. It climaxes with an agonizingly delayed fulfillment of the “Chekhov’s gun” principle and ends with a terrifying dénouement. There’s a child in the cast, but Mercury Fur is not, I repeat not, a play for children (though, remarkably, Ridley is a prolific children’s author as well).
For adults who haven’t yet had enough apocalyptic visions, and who can stomach some very tough content, this Mercury Fur is a stunner. The production by The New Group runs through September 27 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., NYC.