Entering the theater for a performance of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur one might assume the play takes place in some desolated village along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The set the audience encounters looks like an apartment that has taken a direct hit from a drone strike.
It is not long after Elliot and his brother Darren enter, stepping over the dead dog outside and carrying flashlights, that it becomes clear the situation is closer to home than we might have thought. We are in New York sometime in the near future shortly after a tsunami of a sandstorm rained giant cocoons, decimating the population and turning the city into a jungle.
The cocoons spawned a plague of butterflies which when ingested wipe out one's memory and are addictive. Blue butterflies induce euphoria; black butterflies summon thoughts of suicide.
Elliot and Darren are in a catering business of sorts. They provide parties for those rich enough to pay to live out their most gruesome fantasies. Elliot runs the operation while Darren, who is hooked on butterflies and doesn't remember much from one moment to the next, is the gofer. They have taken over this abandoned space to set up that night's entertainment.
As they start cleaning the debris, they are interrupted by Naz, another survivor of the apocalyptic sandstorm who is squatting in an apartment down the hall. There is a reference to Spinx, the mastermind behind the business and who will show up later with the Duchess, a blind woman in an evening gown who thinks it is still the past. And there are frantic phone calls to Lola, a transvestite who is Elliot's love and is providing the Party Piece of the evening.
Ridley's play, which premiered a decade ago in England, was originally set in London, but he has moved the action to New York for its debut here. We learn, for example, that the Metropolitan Museum and New York Public Library have been ransacked and that Lincoln Center is in rubble. There are marauding gangs that kill and rape for thrills. In fact, life in Ridley's Manhattan sounds pretty much like the cult film classic Escape From New York.
Mercury Fur unabashedly aims at shock value. Naz's account of how his mother and sister met their end will make even the most avid horror-film buff cringe. And by the time Lola shows up with the Party Piece, a young Asian boy who will satisfy the Vietnam-War fantasy of the client, a Wall Street mogul, one can easily imagine where the evening is heading.
But beneath the ghoulish events both described and acted out (mercifully offstage), there is a scathing indictment of the world we inhabit and where we are heading. The atrocities of the Islamic State are only the latest to follow genocides in Africa, the Balkans, and Germany under the Nazis, along with the mass abductions and rapes of innocent victims, including children, that fill our daily news reports.
Ridley's play is not for the squeamish. Quite a bit of blood is spilled when the client begins to act out his gory dream. There are some inconsistencies in Ridley's dystopia. Although there is no electricity, there appears to be no shortage of batteries. Cellphones still work, and there is even beer in bottles and peanuts in plastic jars. The play also could use some judicious editing (it runs just over two hours without an intermission).
But there is more to Mercury Fur than the revulsion it creates. Ridley has brought the outrages of our time closer to home and cast a flashlight on where they could lead. The director Scott Elliott moves the play along at a smart pace, and an energetic cast makes it uncomfortably credible.
Zane Pais and Jack DiFalco, making their New York stage debuts, are convincing as the pragmatic Elliot and slow-witted Darren, respectively. Sea McHale is persuasively menacing as Spinx, and Emily Cass McDonnell provides the comic relief, such as it is, as the Duchess. As Naz, Tony Revolori delivers the most chilling set piece of the play in a matter-of-fact monotone. And Paul Iacono gives a strong performance as Lola.