theater (reviews)

review: jerusalem

Jerusalem

By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
Featuring Mark Rylance, Alan David, Mackenzie Crook, Danny Kirrane
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street
production web site:  http://jerusalembroadway.com/

April 21, 2011 (press opening) — May 8, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 16, 2011

  • “Impromptu.  A few people showed up.  Snowballed.” (Rooster on the party we see at the open of the play)
  • “When I leave Flintock my eyes pop.” (Davey on his physical response to traveling far from home)

Three acts; thunderous acclaim from the London production; a pivotal role portrayed by a man beloved by audiences and critics alike for various roles in recent months; a set featuring trees, dirt, grass, and a version of a silver rounded Airstream trailer (or caravan to use the British-ism); a cast of 16; titular invocations of a cultural celebratory poem; and counter-cultural life in a conventional world.  Jerusalem is a brawling brute of a play and production that works on many levels, and brought my preview audience to its feet.  An adventure that holds you until … some final choices by the playwright. An extraordinary, yet qualified, achievement.

The new show Peter and the Starcatcher that recently concluded a run at the New York Theatre Workshop provides us with an imagined pre-story to J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan, some years before Peter meets up with Wendy and the other Darling children.  Jerusalem could be the sequel several years on —  with a very human Peter in the form of Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance) who provides refuge to a range of children and adults who want, if not to “never grow up” at least to step out of their conventional roles for a time.  Rooster’s refuge in the woods is haven to many for years, and we capture that party locale for its last blow out.  One last St. George’s Day.

Rooster has a background as a daredevil (cycle-jumping cars ala Evil Knievel, that sort of thing), leading to past leg or foot injuries which explain his painful gait .  He smiles and hops around his encampment and through the pain when others are around, and sits with effort when alone. (And as several other reviewers have noted, an early moment of this ageing bohemian pulling out his spectacles to read a legal paper, when no one else is around, then tucking those specs away when someone approaches, is touching and revealing.  This hiding of the specs may not be vanity so much as not wanting to reveal that he’s read the paper.)  In the play’s opening scene we see an eviction notice delivered by two “community liaison officers”, who represent the arm of the law and real estate developers, with a gentle side.  We soon learn that Rooster has squatted on this forested land for 20-odd years, and that it is fast being encroached upon by housing subdivisions.  Conventional life versus free thinking.  We know this story — see A Thousand Clowns for a serious-humorous 1960s New York City bohemian take on the same themes.  We love this story.

In Jez Butterworth‘s take on these themes, the leader of the band breakfasts on milk and vodka, markets cocaine, chides authority, lives just outside his old world yet visits it regularly (for income as an occasional house painter, as an incognito visitor to the town council meetings).  In this cast of characters there are adults who are Rooster’s contemporaries who once indulged in his kind of adolescent play and have grown out of it after a fashion — Wesley (Max Baker) who runs the local pub, The Professor (Alan David) who may be a neighbor, Rooster’s ex-wife/partner Dawn (Geraldine Hughes) — who loses superiority points while gaining humanity on a visit when she takes advantage of a few lines of cocaine Rooster has thoughtfully left out for her use, when she thinks he isn’t looking.  We meet a middle generation of 20- or 30-somethings who have found in “Rooster’s Wood” a refuge from their lives: Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), Lee (John Gallagher Jr.) who is about to emigrate to Australia, Davey the butcher (Danny Kirrane) who works hard during the week and treasures this campground to let off some weekend steam.  Teenaged girls find refuge at the encampment to have fun and escape perhaps more terrifying realities in their home lives: Phaedra (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), Pea (Molly Ranson), and Tanya (Charlotte Mills).  The almost silent child Marky (Mark Page at my performance), son of Rooster and Dawn, enters to illustrate to us the mess Rooster has made of his life, and the attempts at redemption he thrashes through (almost literally) in the play’s final moments to make sense of that relationship.

The world created by set and costumer designer Ultz, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, sound designer Ian Dickinson utilizing original music by Stephen Warbeck provides the framework for the transporting performances in this piece.  Rylance entrances and extols and commands this stage.  His supporting players are equally compelling.  Butterworth’s script through two acts provides paced revelations that add layers to the assembled characters and their relationships with Rooster’s world.  And then — the scripted weak point occurs in the play’s third act, involving brothers Troy (Barry Sloane), Frank (Jay Sullivan) and Danny (Richard Short), plays on an entirely different and unresolved level.  We learn early in the play that Troy is Phaedra’s step father and there may be things amiss in their relationship, that Troy has his own adolescent past with adventures at Rooster’s Wood.  In the third act Troy returns to retrieve the missing runaway girl he suspects is residing there.  Resentment, anger, and possible incest are all elements of a combustible combination that leads to an explosion of tension in a manner oddly out of step with the rest of the play. Yet this production is rousing and contains several bravura performances — and a boffo set! — in the intimate Music Box.  Peter Pan and the lost boys and girls in the woods.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 21, 2011)

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