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Radiant Vermin

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 7, 2016

Scarlett Alice Johnson, Debra Baker,
and Sean Michael Verey
Photo by Carol Rosegg

British playwright Philip Ridley has a knack for devising titles that are quite suggestive of what you can expect to encounter as a member of the audience. Tender Napalm, Piranha Heights, and Leaves of Glass are three examples of works in which Ridley gleefully explores themes of trauma, violence, and psychosis.

"Gleeful" may seem to be an odd adjective to append to such subject matter, but Ridley is adroit at weaving throughout his writing a thread of juicy humor that keeps us from fleeing the theater in horror. If you saw last year's production by The New Group of Ridley's dystopian tale, Mercury Fur, you'll know what I mean. That play, which takes place in a violent and anarchistic world gone quite mad, contains its share of joltingly funny lines that may make you laugh out loud, and then leave you wondering at the appropriateness of your reaction. For example, someone trying to find his way in the dark is told helpfully to "step over the dead dog and turn left."

Now we have Radiant Vermin, opening tonight as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. While the play has its share of mayhem, Ridley has greatly downshifted the tone that characterized his more excessive works, so that what we have is a quieter satire that seems to draw its inspiration from Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay, "A Modest Proposal." That was the piece in which the famous author of "Gulliver's Travels" dryly suggested that the way to ease the lives of impoverished Irish families would be for them to sell their children as food to be consumed by the wealthy.

With Radiant Vermin, the instigating social issues being lightly skewered are the housing shortage and the proliferation of homelessness and vagrancy. A young couple, feeling trapped in a tiny flat in the "crime capital of the universe" and with a baby on the way, is approached with an offer by a government agent. They will be given a house sorely in need of rehabbing, with the proviso that they live in it and make all the necessary repairs to turn it into their dream home.

Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson) is rather keen on the idea, but her husband Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) is more skeptical, fearing they will get in over their heads and wind up in some "slum in the sticks" as pioneers of a government experiment in controlled gentrification. It takes a direct sales pitch from the agent, "Miss Dee" (Debra Baker), to convince them to take the risk.

As they get settled in their new home (we have to imagine it all in this bare-staged production), it becomes clear that the task ahead is a daunting one. Jill looks around and sees the shell of a house for its potential as a model for upscale living, while Ollie can only see the loose wires and lack of proper plumbing. Still, every problem has its solution, and eventually Jill and Ollie figure out that there is a way to make their every dream come to fruition. All it takes is some conscience-quashing bargaining to make it happen, especially as it impacts the lives of the population of vagrants (i. e. the "vermin" of the title) they will need to drive out of their new community. What's a little savagery, after all, in comparison to obtaining that peach and white kitchen from Selfridges?

Ms. Johnson and Mr. Verey are excellent as Jill and Ollie, but, at least as directed by David Mercatali, their characters are basically cartoonish caricatures out of an ironic fairy tale. Thus, the play foregoes a sense of creepy horror that might have raised our level of concern as the pair willingly leaps into the trap set by Miss Dee, whose name and intimate knowledge of everything the couple is up to strongly suggest that she is less of an agent of the government than she is of the Devil (though the playwright may be proposing they are one and the same).

Ms. Baker, who, in addition to performing the role of Miss Dee also puts in an appearance as one of the derelicts, plays it less obviously tongue-in-cheek, more in keeping with a Swiftian satire that posits another direction the production could take. As it stands, however, it is Jill and Ollie's ability to self-justify their every greed-driven decision that gives the play its only real bite, even as it all-too-gently attempts to make the audience feel complicit in the enterprise.

Radiant Vermin
Through July 3
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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