Parlour Song is worth seeing for Jez Butterworth's fiercely funny dialogue
At the beginning of Parlour Song, demolitions expert Ned is showing videos of his work to his neighbor, Dale, owner of a car wash. Dale is polite but uninterested — he's seen these many times before, though Ned seems to have forgotten showing them to him — but for the audience, the videos are fascinating: the balance between control and destruction, the way a building leans almost reluctantly into itself, slowly hollowing before exploding in a slow, beautiful, meditative ballet. This is a fitting representation of what is happening within Ned's marriage to restless, indifferent Joy and, in fact, to his entire life.
Ned feeds Joy a chicken dinner and asks anxiously if she likes it. She's polite, but too full for a second helping — and tasting the jam roly-poly pudding he's lovingly prepared for dessert would cause her physical discomfort, she explains. You never really learn from the script whether Joy is put off by Ned's persistent melancholy or his over-solicitousness. Perhaps she's just plain bored. Objects are disappearing from Joy and Ned's house: a bicycle, a stuffed badger, a bust of Aldous Huxley — things that don't carry emotional resonance and things that do. Joy seems genuinely upset at the loss of the cufflinks she once bought for Ned to wear to a wedding; he mourns the beautiful blue birdbath he found for her in Gloucester early in their relationship, lugging it through the streets to the place where they were supposed to meet. And he's puzzled, because the thing would be so awkward for a thief to carry.
Ned tries everything he can think of to keep his wife. He enlists the help of good friend Dale in an effort to lose weight, or, as he says, get rid of his tits. In one of the evening's funniest scenes, he listens to a sex-advice tape, following the instructions of the coolly un-sensuous female narrator on how to deploy his tongue during oral sex. In most disintegrating-in-suburbia fiction, the protagonists dull their pain with sleeping pills and anti-depressants. Ned can't do that: His demolition contract requires that he never take drugs. So when Joy discovers pills, they turn out to be — pathetically — the Rogaine he's purchased to save his hair.
Parlour Song is the fourth work of Jez Butterworth's to be produced by Paragon Theatre Company, and the milieu is very different from that of such earlier pieces as Mojo, an expletive-riddled study of a group of small-time criminals; The Winterling, set in a dilapidated Dartmoor farmhouse and featuring an on-the run gangster; and the richly ambitious The Night Heron, an anti-pastoral also populated by felons, sadists and losers. Here we're in the apparently conventional world of John Updike and John Cheever, except that Joy, Ned and Dale are lower-middle rather than upper-middle class — which makes a difference — and there's also a persistent undertone of menace that makes comparisons to Pinter inevitable. Ned is unable to sleep and haunted by a terrifying dream. Dale, who seems the ideal male buddy, will soon betray the friendship. The dialogue communicates a persistent sense of deracination, instability, change, and the loss and deterioration caused by time's passing.
Parlour Song is worth seeing because Butterworth's dialogue is so fiercely funny — Dale and Joy's debate, for example, about whether it's best to be eaten by a shark or a lion — and because the show stars three of the best actors in the area. But there's still something oddly uninvolving about this production. The characters remain enigmatic throughout; the actors need to make this ambiguousness mesmerizing, and they don't. This is partly the fault of the space, which is anything but intimate. (Paragon will be moving to a new theater this season.) Emily Paton Davies is a cool but not particularly seductive Joy — perhaps the English accent defines the character too much. No one does profound anguish better than Warren Sherrill, and his Ned is often very effective, but he remains so subdued that you never really feel for him. And for the life of me, I couldn't figure out the motivation behind Dale's dalliance with Joy: Was it lust, convenience, boredom, love or masculine competitiveness? Even if the playwright never made it clear, Michael Stricker — who gives an otherwise strong performance — should have. Paradoxically, Parlour Song might be more moving if it was played faster, funnier and hotter.
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