Nonconformists are entertaining; the middle-class conformists who pay staggering prices to see hit shows love to spend a cozy evening being diverted by a grubby, scruffy, semi-hostile nonconformist. If you remember Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns (Broadway, 1962; revived 1996 and 2001), or you chortled over René Fauchois’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1919; filmed by Jean Renoir, 1934; remade by Paul Mazursky as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, 1986), you won’t find any surprises in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (Music Box Theatre), except perhaps his need to spend three-plus hours retailing such old news.
Butterworth uses that thick slice of time attempting to weld some larger cultural meaning to his intransigent nonconformist, Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance). Stage nonconformity’s downside is that it doesn’t, in itself, offer much dramatic substance. The hero either ends by conforming, or doesn’t; in the latter case, he either gets crushed, or gets away. The middles of such plays tend to be filled with sidebar material, covering up their innate stasis.
Butterworth fills Jerusalem‘s middle with jumble-sale oddments, riffing on English folk tradition, mass-media kitsch, lumpenprole class animosity, sex-drugs-rock-‘n’-roll, and rural resistance to suburban sprawl. Set in the Wiltshire woods where Johnny parks his camper-van home, the action begins on St. George’s Day; the show curtain displays the St. George flag, England’s official emblem (though nowadays largely supplanted by Great Britain’s Union Jack).
Part Roma (hostile locals call him “gyppo,” meaning “gypsy”), Johnny lives by selling his rare blood type to nearby hospitals, doing odd jobs, and peddling drugs to area teens. Between times, he screws around or gets drunk and acts out violently. Unsurprisingly, his neighbors have petitioned the town council to evict him.
Even Rylance’s spectacularly showy performance, a multihued nonstop display, can’t sustain interest in this marathon role’s essentially unchanging antisocial posture. Butterworth’s efforts to portray Johnny as a mentor and a repository of England’s spiritual imagination keep bumping, ludicrously, against the sordid realism with which the meager events are depicted. At the end, with the eviction crew coming, the tall tales and feisty chatter Johnny’s been spinning interminably seem to matter little (especially to Americans, remote from England’s provincial concerns) and rouse even less empathy.
Ian Rickson’s staging, sometimes awkward, also sometimes shifts interestingly into conscious stylization; the supporting cast pitches in effectively, especially Mackenzie Crook as Johnny’s best-worst pal. But Jerusalem, its title allusion to William Blake’s poem notwithstanding, does nothing to improve England’s green, putrescent land.