Jez Butterworth is an actor’s playwright. His play, Jerusalem, for example, was designed to show off the considerable chops of British actor Mark Rylance in a three-hour tour of an encampment peopled by the down-and-out. Mr. Rylance won both London’s Olivier Award and New York’s Tony™ Award for his performance and performances of his fellow company members were praised.
Mr. Butterworth’s Parlour Song is from the same period. It runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and it focuses on middle class British couples who are settled but not always comfortably. Nevertheless, Mr. Butterworth also constructs a story with roles for two excellent actors and one superior actor.
Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company provides the requisite acting – and directing – power in this West Coast premiere. It’s playing at Ion’s BLKBOX theatre through September 6.
Mr. Butterworth’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to reproduce the speech patterns and attitudes of the people who serve as models for his plays. In this case, the characters live in the Midlands, in houses that are part of a new development. Ned (Mike Sears) works as a demolition expert for a company that blows up buildings that are due to be razed for newer development projects. He lives with his wife, Joy (Jessica John), in a marriage that is pretty clearly growing stale. Ned’s friend, Dale (Francis Gercke), lives next door with his wife and children. Dale manages a car wash, serves as sounding board and cheerleader for Ned (Joy isn’t much interested, it seems). Dale is also having an affair with Joy.
All three characters seem to be in the midst of mid-life crises. Ned handles his by working harder (at home and at work) and going on a fitness régime. Joy becomes even more withdrawn disconnected and passive-aggressive. Dale finds comfort in escaping his own home life and becoming part of what his neighbors are going through. He’s also what Ned aspires to be – handsome and sexy – and he encourages Ned even though he surely knows that Ned will never reach his goal.
Mr. Butterworth casts a critical eye at the illusion of comfort that characterizes middle-class British society. Ned complains that possessions, including a prized gift he purchased for Joy on their honeymoon, keep disappearing, despite no sign of a break-in. Joy complains when Ned announces that his company is going to demolish a local shopping center, contending that she was losing what was a perfectly acceptable place to shop. Ned seems oblivious to the implication that the center is being demolished in order to make the developer of the replacement center rich.
Mr. Butterworth casts a critical eye at the illusion of comfort that characterizes middle-class British society
Mr. Butterworth creates titles for each scene, and those titles are projected as the scenes begin. Taken collectively, the titles provide a pretty good idea of the play’s critique.
Each of the actors has moments to shine, both in monologues and in scenes. Arguably, though, Mr. Gercke’s character is the central one, because as the outsider he is in the position to comment on the dilemmas faced by the other couple while, mostly, ignoring his own. Yet, Dale, while more appealing than Ned or Joy, is perhaps the most morally-bankrupt of the bunch.
Director Lisa Berger knows the ins and outs of relationships, and she surefootedly leads her actors through their individual mazes. Michael McKeon’s scenic design combines simplicity with the ability to accomplish the one visual element that is key to the plot. He’s nicely supported by Peet Cocke’s lighting (and, apparently, projection) design. Jessica John Gercke’s costume design and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design contribute appropriately to the production.
Parlour Song is the first outing for Backyard Renaissance, which has been founded by the Gerckes as a means of producing what they describe as “art to the gut.” The company’s next announced outing will be a production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, next April in conjunction with Oceanside Theatre. If it’s as good as Parlour Song it should be very good, indeed.