nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
March 15, 2008
In Parlour Song, British playwright Jez Butterworth has given us a play that is more satisfying intellectually than emotionally. In it, a marriage goes wrong and things start to go missing, literally. Amusing metaphors and shrewd theatrical devices abound, keeping my attention fully engaged. The language is at times raw, at other times poetic. Yet permeating the show is a strong sense of deliberate remoteness that kept me from entering the characters' inner world, and a laborious layering and arranging of the surface that constantly took me out of its reality. I found myself taking mental notes of the imposingly dense symbolism that it flashes overtly and repeatedly, like a good student in a film study class. In the end I admired it more than I loved it.
It is a story about three people. Ned is a demolition expert and compulsive vintage collector. He and his wife, Joy, live in an English suburb. Dale, a transplanted Australian car washer and best friend to Ned, is their neighbor. Dale and Joy are physically striking, with aggressively confident personalities to match, while Ned is plain, out of shape, and meager. The disconnect and discontent in Ned and Joy's marriage is clear from their first moment onstage together. Ned is desperate to reconnect. Joy, who has been having an affair with Dale, does not reciprocate. Ned makes an effort to get back into shape, and he solicits Dale's help, also sharing his discovery that his collection has been gradually disappearing. He has a recurring nightmare too, so horrifying that it keeps him from sleeping, or revealing its content to anyone.
What is never been made clear is what brought Ned and Joy together, and what ultimately breaks them apart. Joy and Dale's affair suffers the same problem. The triangle lacks tension, since we in the audience are kept out of its evolution. We are simply there to witness its final death. Nevertheless, an exquisite death it is, for Butterworth's words are immensely rich. Some of them are highlighted with onscreen projections to stunning effect.
Structurally the play employs Dale as the main storyteller and commentator. With nearly the entire story told from his perspective, it is slightly confusing toward the end, when Ned and Joy are given the spotlight as well. Director Neil Pepe utilizes various methods and styles of storytelling to successfully create mood and ambiance. The shifting angles and swift transitions hold attention, but do not always build significant emotional impact. The look of the play is remarkably cinematic, with every "frame" perfectly designed and executed. It is a feast for the senses as well as the intellect.
The performances are physically bold and expressive. Jonathan Cake's Dale is smooth, flamboyant, and highly entertaining. He has a way with words and gives Butterworth's lyrical language an earthy grounding. His physical presence is formidable and important to the story. Emily Mortimer plays Joy with a great deal of flair, creating a lofty and enigmatic figure full of allure. Her movement is self-possessed and skillful, if overly so. Chris Bauer's Ned has subtlety and much needed restraint. It is impossible not to respond to his vulnerability and despair. His tightly suppressed rage is the main source of the tension carrying the show.
The sets by Robert Brill are at first glance deceptively conventional, but full of surprises. The sound by Obadiah Eaves and lighting by Kenneth Posner are equally crucial. The superb artistry they provide at times refocuses or even sustains the show when it tends toward the predictable.
The best aspect of the play is the humor peeking through the melancholy. The demolition business is uncannily funny, and the British suburban life is scarily familiar. It is brilliant social commentary. The virtue of the play is that it offers no simplistic morality lessons or tidy resolutions, but paints a bleak picture of modern relationships that begs provocative and mature questions. If you like a show where you can disappear into the story and be swept away, you may find this production's machinations less than stirring. But if you enjoy a show that says a lot with great self-assurance, you are very likely to be thrilled with this sophisticated and highly polished urban fable.