According to the usual pessimistic estimates, New York City’s future is headed squarely in the slicker, glitzier, more expensive, and duller direction. But the English playwright Philip Ridley has a different, grimmer vision: roving gangs of machete-wielding thugs; an infestation of hallucinogenic butterflies; the drastic impoverishment of culture; and a dearth of living women. (Lots of dead or maimed ones, though.)
This is the dismal setting for Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a litany of tired shock tactics that manages the difficult trick of being simultaneously gory and boring. (Goring?) It’s playing at the Signature Center, in an unimaginative New Group production by Scott Elliott. In Ridley’s imagining, NYC has radically de-gentrified after a murkily described apocalyptic event. The city is a graffitied ruin, populated by drug addicts — they eat the hallucinogenic butterflies — perverts, and sociopaths. Yes, the Big Apple has basically reverted to how the rest of the country viewed it circa 1975. Brothers Darren (Jack DiFalco) and Elliot (Zane Pais) eke out a living running a dystopian party-planning business, staging snuff-porn soirees for the wealthy and cruel — sort of a post-apocalyptic Sleep No More. But on this occasion things go awry: A boy a Wall Street bro-type would like to torture to death expires of maltreatment before he can make his bloody debut, and another victim must be selected. Too late, glimmers of ethical feeling emerge amid the sadistic showpeople — just as a fleet of bombers arrives to blast this sci-fi Sodom away. (Hooray! That means you can go home.)
As you might gather, the proceedings are pretty lurid. The play’s momentum depends on our awareness that the characters plan to aid and abet the torture and murder of a child, for profit, and then on our anticipation of the brutality. What’s surprising is how tedious it is. Faced with the play’s adrenaline-amped permanent crisis mode, Elliott opts for a shouty, realist approach; another director might have made more of Ridley’s hallucinogenic images and less of the opportunities for yelling while covered in blood.
Ridley is one of the founders of the 1990s school of “in yer face” English playwriting — Sarah Kane’s cohort — renowned for violence, extremity, and cussing; this is a revision of an earlier work set in London. (Gomorrah, perhaps? Are dystopias really so portable?) Mercury Fur desperately tries to outrage you and occasionally succeeds (there were a few walkouts the night I saw it, but I couldn’t tell you if they were appalled or merely tired). But only in theater would we accord this kind of fake violence and trumped-up moral crisis any artistic seriousness — this is an achievement on par with James DeMonaco’s Purge movies.
The big question hanging over the production is: To what purpose are we being scandalized? If Ridley’s trying to tell us that life in a lawless failed state is nasty and brutish and that artists often satisfy a society’s worst instincts — none of that is a surprise. We see ghastlier scenes in the news every day. If he’s telling us that New York City caters to the bored and depraved — well, imagine the number of people willing to wait in line for a Cronut™. Despite the play’s moralism, Ridley is more like his main characters than he’d admit: staging prurient, pointless thrills for jaded urban appetites.
By Philip Ridley
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