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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Sure, the place could use some fixing up, but the two soon discover quite the expedient (which comes to light early in the play; nonetheless, spoiler-averse readers might not want to continue reading): after Ollie accidentally kills a vagrant who has wandered into their kitchen in search of food, the room magically transforms into the showroom kitchen Jill recently fawned over at Selfridges. Another not-quite-so-accidental death in the living room ends with a similar result. And so they set about recruiting unwitting "renovators" from London's destitute, determined to perfect their home before the arrival of their first child.
Such a macabre premise is hardly a stretch for Ridley, who is best known for his controversial 2005 play Mercury Fur, which depicts a dystopian society where the wealthy entertain themselves by getting high on hallucinogenic butterflies and acting out depraved fantasies such as torturing a child. That play elicited many strong reactions, including from Ridley's own publisher, who declined to release the script.
Radiant Vermin, which comes to 59E59 from the Soho Theatre in London as part of the 2016 Brits Off Broadway festival, seems unlikely to cause the same stir as Fur for several reasons. One is this play's more abstract rendering—the production features a completely mimed set, next to no props, and sparse, but telling, light cues (William Reynolds takes the sole design credit here)—which creates some detachment between the action and its portrayal.
The storytelling too operates at this level of removal: instead of depicting the play's events through the fourth wall, it places Jill and Ollie in direct engagement with the audience as they recount their story after-the-fact. Under the direction of David Mercatali, Johnson and Verey—who played off of each other previously on the BBC series Pramface—nail the yuppie vibe in their chipper and tireless performances. Their enactment of a climactic birthday party, in which each takes on the roles of all the male or female guests, is a bit jumbled, but ultimately proves a feat of sustained, highly physical performance. Verey's several instances of physical combat against imagined foes (one of which is pictured above) are similarly impressive.
Of course, underneath the extremes of the Faustian bargain that Jill and Ollie strike with Miss Dee lies unsavory behavior that's much more recognizable. They employ severe social Darwinism to justify cruelty to the disadvantaged. Desperate to keep up with the Joneses, their material desires become more and more insatiable, requiring greater sacrifices. And in willingly upping the ante, the two place monetary value far above human value.
These flaws are expressed in an exaggerated fashion, and yet it's easy to see Ridley's point. When Jill and Ollie ask us to ponder if we'd do what they did, it's not that Ridley expects us to say yes. Rather, he seems to hope that we'll look beyond the play's ludicrous surface and consider, say, our roles in gentrification, or how we treat the poor and "undesirable" of society.
That's a fair enough point, and even though it's not unconventional, the way that it's explored here is original, entertaining, and witty, in addition to offering what is probably a field day for its nimble performers. The play is stymied, though, as it becomes mired in contradictions. The story is so absurd that it's hard for it to have a strong, resonant emotional impact. Meanwhile, its darkness curtails the humor that could be found in this absurdity.
So, in a sense, Radiant Vermin's empty stage becomes a kind of purgatory. Here, Ridley can't take us to heaven, but try as he might, he doesn't quite send us to hell either.
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Radiant Vermin by Philip Ridley
Directed by David Mercatali
Cast: Scarlett Alice Johnson (Jill), Sean Michael Verey (Ollie), and Debra Baker (Miss Dee)
Design: William Reynolds
Stage Manager: Sofia Montgomery
Production Manager: Heather Doole
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission
Presented by Supporting Wall, Metal Rabbit Productions, and Soho Theatre for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison Aves.)
Tickets: $35; 212-279-4200, www.59e59.org
From 6/2/2016; opened 6/7/2016; closing 7/3/2016
Performance times: Tuesdays–Thursdays at 7:15 pm, Fridays at 8:15 pm, Saturdays at 2:15 and 8:15 pm, and Sundays at 3:15 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/2/2016 performance
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