And exactly why is it called Mercury Fur?
By Peter Filichia
I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.
I figured it out soon after I entered the Linney Theatre and saw Derek McLane’s ravaged, graffiti-laden set. Upended furniture sat on a stained rug on which a deck of cards and about 52 other items had been strewn.
This, I said to myself, is the type of play where the house lights don’t dim but just snap off to make you suddenly scared.
Some minutes later, I was proved right, as we were all plunged into darkness and set on the adventure known as Philip Ridley’s MERCURY FUR.
The first words we hear are “Elliott? Elliott?” Now given that the play has been directed by Scott Elliott, I started wondering. Did Ridley’s agent send the play to Elliott figuring that his immediately seeing his name would grab his attention and keep him reading?
Hmmmm, perhaps playwrights should name their characters after the directors to whom they plan to send their plays. After all, changing names only means a few keystrokes of inconvenience. So, playwrights, if you’re sending to the Public Theatre, have your first words be “Oscar? Oscar?” If you have a stage or musical version of The Sopranos, begin with a Soprano calling out “Meadow? Meadow?” and send it to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Lynne Meadow.
Actually, Scott Elliott spells his last name with two “t’s” and Elliot in the play has but one. No one could know that for sure, however, for this is one of those shows where programs are distributed only as you leave. Well, although the occasional film starts with such words as “Boston, 1775,” most movies and TV shows don’t tell us when and where we are in advance, so why must plays?
You do in advance get a small piece of paper that asks the de rigueur “Please turn off all cell phones,” although you may well infer that the added “as to not disturb the festivities” is meant quite tongue-in-cheek.
It also warns us that the show is “2 hours with no intermission” and that “While we do not want any interruptions, if you absolutely need to leave the apartment during the evening, please exit through one of the doors indicated on the reverse map.” You see, the set-up is akin to a football stadium, with bleachers on each side of the set, so leaving won’t be easy.
This is a play that could spur walkouts, because it’s as ugly as its set. Elliot is a drug dealer, although in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world, drugs are now manufactured in the shape of butterflies. And butterflies aren’t free. That’s one reason why Elliot is so angry with his brother Darren for eating one. Besides, he needs him to help for the Big Party he’s throwing tonight.
This will not be a gathering that recalls anything thrown by Elsa Maxwell or be compared to one of Truman Capote’s balls. Still, Elliot wants to tidy up the place to make it look as nice as possible, so he barks a great many orders to Darren to help. Why bother? It still looks like a sty after the alleged clean-up.
Elliot is imperious, short-tempered and terrible to Darren (the appropriately wimpy Jack DiFalco). Ridley makes a good point when Lola comes in and acts just as horribly Elliot. Yes, some people who harass other people allow themselves to be harassed by different people.
Lola is played (and in sharp fashion) by Paul Iacono. Whether Lola is a transvestite or transsexual is not disclosed, although the former is the more likely scenario, given that he speaks in a firmly masculine voice. None of the people who are meeting Lola for the first time make any mention of his dress, so we’re in a society that truly thinks nothing of it.
To be fair, one character – a woman called, for no explained reason, “The Duchess” — would be hard-pressed to comment on Lola, because she’s blind. She one of at least two extraneous characters. Having them parade gives us too much time to figure out where the play is going.
Not that I was 100% correct. Because director Scott Elliott is famous for including nudity in his productions, I had another “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it” moment. Talk of Vietnam and the appearance of a thin, demure and short Asian made me remember that famous Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of the shell-shocked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running down the street naked. I cockily guessed that the character who paid for the party — and later donned camouflage fatigues — wanted this scene replicated.
Wrong. Fans of stage nudity will be disappointed, especially after a different character is commanded to “Strip!” But underwear is where Elliott this time draws the line.
Considering what did happen, I think my scenario superior. But the character known as “Party Piece” turned out to be a male – Bradley Fong, to be precise. On the other hand, we couldn’t know that for sure until programs were put in our hands.
Frankly, there are at least two Law & Order episodes that have similar scenarios to Mercury Fur. And what’s worse than a play that’s supposed to be sensational (in both senses of the word) but ultimately comes across as boring?
You may feel differently. When Ben Brantley saw Mercury Fur in London in 2005, he started his review with “Rarely does a play leave me shaking these days.” I didn’t shake for a second. Perhaps Brantley is a nicer person than I am.
(I’m sure there are thousands of theater people who don’t think so. For that matter, just as many undoubtedly think that we’re both stinkers. You don’t do this job for any length of time without making enemies.)
Ridley, who is British, set the play in his native England and included plenty of Londonese expressions and idiomatic dialogue. Although the program wouldn’t reveal where or when we are, Elliott has either asked or Ridley volunteered to set it in America.
That the actors speak in conventional English still doesn’t make Mercury Fur easy to understand. In keeping with the way many of the younger generation speak, the actors deliver the dialogue in fast and furious fashion. That’s especially true of Elliot in a powerful performance by Zane Pais. You may need a few minutes to catch up to him, but chances are you’ll soon adjust.
And then you can fully glean the evil, profanity and carnage. But Darren does have a moment when he remembers the nice evenings he and Elliot used to spend with their parents watching “that musical Mum and Dad liked. The mountains and all those kids going ‘Do, re, mi.’” Later “The Duchess” too has a Sound of Music memory. Maybe the moral of the story is that we should indeed be watching a wholesome musical than a play such as Mercury Fur.