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A CurtainUp Review
Parlour Song

It's not that he can't sleep. It's that he's afraid to. See, I'm no expert, but from where I stand, the problem, Ned's problem's dreams. . . You always knew if he'd had the dream, the night before, because all the next day he was yellow. Jumpier than a crow on roadkill. His solution? Don't sleep. White knuckle it. .— Dale, in one of his audience addressing monologues, attributing Ned's complaints about items he owns disappearing to his being disoriented by a reccurring nightmare and his inability to seek relief by taking a pill to relax because it would jeopardize his job as a demolition man.
Chris Bauer and Jonathan Cake in Parlour Song
Chris Bauer and Jonathan Cake in Parlour Song
(Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Parlour Song is Jez Butterworth's third play and first world premiere at the Atlantic Theater. First there was Mojo, an expletive studded, moldy slice of London lowlife whose characters were notable for their greed, amorality and stupidity. Next came The Night Heron, a very different sort of drama about two men whose life in a cabin in the Cambridgeshire fens was disarranged by an unexpected female "tenant." Now we have Parlour Song, a marital drama set in a suburb of look-alike houses.

The characters and situations in these plays couldn't be more different, yet there's a common thread running through all: An overarching sense of menace! It's obvious that Butterworth's most influential role model is Harold Pinter, whose own major literary forbear was Samuel Beckett.

It's that sense of Pinteresque menace —in this case a recurring, vaguely articulated nightmare, a mysterious rash of possessions gone missing— that kicks Parlour Song out of the standard domestic drama category. To intensify this aura of looming disaster, Neil Pepe, who also directed Mojo and The Night Heron, has given it a production that's fittingly in keeping with the eerie mood. He gets a major assist from lighting designer Kenneth Posner. But what really lifts this above the pack of domestic dramas about marital discontent and disconnect is the electric cast of three. All are more than up to the challenge of finding that deeper and darker something in their characters' ordinary suburbanite facade.

Jonathan Cake's Dale, a successful but bored car wash entrepreneur, serves as narrator of his neighbors' (Joy,Emily Mortimer and Ned, Chris Bauer) marital crisis. He and his never seen family live right next door to Joy and Ned. Their houses are built on the sort of site that Ned's job as a demolition expert clears to make way for similar housing developments and other enterprises. That job is the play's overriding metaphor for the emotional destruction going on in Ned and Joy's lives — lives that have taken a turn far different from their youthful hopes and expectations.

All three of these characters are forty and have different ways of reacting to what's often looked upon as a traumatic turning point. Joy has not just fallen out of love with Ned, but her every word and action (and as tellingly, her long silences) indicates that she now finds him repellent. It's hard to believe that she ever played a sexy variation of Scrabble with him. With no sign of children or evidence of an interesting job, she seems to have displaced all her mid-life disappointments onto Ned.

Ned, on the other hand, is still mad about Joy and apparently likes his work (the play opens with him and Dale watching videos of jobs he's done, with Ned providing a running commentary). But his deteriorating relationship with his wife makes what might be a smooth sail into middle age impossible. Joy's coldness has an unsettling effect on his equilibrium. His efforts to lose weight and restore his long lost hair are thus all about holding on to the wife whose name has become an oxymoron in the light of the way she treats him. The nightmare that's begun to haunt him and the mystery of objects that keep disappearing all over the house are a creepy omens of the depth of this couple's problems. Are these mysteriously vanishing objects a case of Ned's becoming so discombobulated that he keeps losing things, or is headed for a major breakdown? Could Joy have some desperate scheme up her sleeve, shades of Gaslight?

As for Dale. . . nothing flabby about his physique! Being a pragmatist, he deals with the sexual blahs in his marriage with tapes on how to perform cunnilingus and doesn't turn down any chance at an occasional dalliance.

It bears repeating that the three actors give knockout performances. Cake is terrific as the least complicated member of the trio. Emily Mortimer, a Brit best know to American audiences for films like Matchpoint, is a gorgeous, sensuous cauldron of discontent. Most remarkable is Bauer, an Atlantic Theater member. As his character blows up buildings, so Bauer blows you away with the authentic intensity of his portrayal.

There's a whiff of pretentiousness in the symbolism of Ned's demolition work as well as the projected scene titles that are currently a favorite and somewhat overused structural device (Hunting and Gathering at Primary Stages, and Paradise Park at the Signature, are two concurrently running shows that come to mind). On the other hand, the idea that there are all sorts of sparks to set off the destructive forces in ourselves and our relationships, as well as the physical world around us, does add the right special dimension to an otherwise familiar situation. It also allows the play's problems and mysteries to be brought to an ending that's conclusive without shattering its aura of ambiguity and darkness.

The Night Heron-London
The Night Heron-New York

Parlour Song
Written by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Chris Bauer (Ned), Jonathan Cake (Dale) and Emily Mortimer (Joy)
. Scenic design: Robert Brill
Costume design: Sarah Edwards
Lighting design: Kenneth Posner
Sound design: Obadiah Eaves
Projection design: Dustin O'Neil
Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street (212) 279-4200
< From 2/15/08; opening 3/05/08; closing 3/29/08—extended to 4/06/08
Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
Tickets: $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 2/27 press performance

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