By Philip Ridley
Directed by David Mercatali
As building and loan president Peter Bailey memorably declares in It’s a Wonderful Life, “It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace”. If Pa Bailey were in the audience for RADIANT VERMIN, he’d be pleased to see that the primal desire for one’s own home, and the willingness to sacrifice for it, is still a driving element of civilized society. He might not be so delighted to discover that, in today’s competitive housing market, the homesteading instinct is mingled with that other deep-in-the-race phenomenon: the capacity for mass murder. If playwright Philip Ridley is to be believed, things have gotten so bad these days that people literally have to kill to secure a place among the middle class.
Expecting their first child, Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson), and Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) are desperate to move out of their high-crime neighborhood. But the search for an affordable home proves daunting. A seemingly miraculous solution arrives in the form of a letter from the charismatic Miss Dee (Debra Baker), a representative of a mysterious new government housing initiative. Ollie and Jill will have a home of their own, and it’s all free! The only catch, it appears, is that the house needs work and is not located in a prime location. Seeing as Ollie has a knack for home improvement, and that gentrification is likely to occur in the near future, these problems don’t seem insurmountable. There is, however, something a bit creepy about the whole affair. Miss Dee knows an awful lot of personal detail about Ollie and Jill and has an uncanny ability to play on their insecurities. Nevertheless, Ollie and Jill take the deal, roughing it for the first few days without electricity and running water. Things change one dark night when Ollie confronts an intruder in the kitchen. A scuffle follows and the trespasser, a homeless man, is killed. Ollie panics, but his worry doesn’t last long. The body disappears in a swarm of fairy lights and voila! The kitchen is suddenly- and magnificently- renovated. Apparently the rules of this magical realm work thusly: when a vagrant is murdered, the spot in which he dies undergoes an instant metamorphosis into a state-of-the art, newly refurbished room. Other “renovations” follow, as Jill and Ollie begin using disguises and lies to lure unsuspecting transients into their home for a quick execution. At one point Jill befriends Kay (also played by Baker in an impressive transformation), whose tragic life story puts a human face on the undesired homeless population. Yet even this touching encounter changes nothing. Compassion, apparently, is no match for a shiny new lavatory.
The young couple’s scheming and rationalizing is bitingly droll up to a point, but after Jill and Ollie have lost their souls there’s nowhere for the plot to go. In an effort to furnish the play with a satisfying climax, a good deal of stage time is devoted to a manic garden party in which neighbors gather to admire the new improvements to the house. Johnson and Verey are remarkable (and exhausting) to watch as they morph with lightning speed from one character to another. Despite their energy, though, the story spins its wheels for too long before the denouement arrives. David Mercatali’s direction is clear and brisk, and it’s fun to see the normally somber Ridley exploring his comedic side. But the satire here seems unfocused. To be sure, the rampant consumerism of today’ society is a deserving target for ridicule, but that alone is not enough to fill a full length play.
Perhaps something is lost in the cultural translation. For Americans, still reeling from the recent housing crisis, homeowners don’t seem like the bad guys. We’ve seen far too many Jills and Ollies forced into homelessness themselves, their Wonderful Lives derailed by a badly mismanaged economic system. Given that context, RADIANT VERMIN’s faintly Marxist indictment of bourgeois aspirations is bold enough to grab our attention, but not to hold it for 90 minutes. Trading the show’s sketch comedy-like caricatures for more multidimensional protagonists would give it more theatrical substance- and help its social criticism land more forcefully.
RADIANT VERMIN continues through July 3, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York.10022 Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php