The bird of the title, a rare breed, never does make much of a showing in Jez Butterworth’s new play at the Atlantic Theater Co. But it isn’t the only element of this peculiar piece of theater that remains elusive. The play is aptly set in a fen in rural England — much about it is murky. Neil Pepe’s production, with a wonderful, oppressively dreary set by Walt Spangler, gets the atmosphere right, but the director and his actors are unable to make engaging theater from the play’s patchwork of eccentricities.
Butterworth has cited Beckett as an inspiration, and the desperate comic interaction between the play’s two seedy central characters, a pair of down-and-out ex-gardeners living on French fries and the rabbits they catch on the marshes, does at times recall that celebrated Irish writer’s most famous creations, the hapless pair from “Waiting for Godot.” (Wattmore, the name of one of them, sounds like the title of a Beckett novel.) At the same time, the bones of the plot, revolving around a weird lodger and an unseen menace, suggest early Pinter.
But the play most powerfully recalls the work of a more recently established author, Martin McDonagh. Most of the odd hallmarks of McDonagh’s fast-growing oeuvre can be detected in some form here: the impoverished backwoods setting; the emotional isolation that breeds powerful intimacies and dangerous grudges; the knotty plotting and carefully stoked suspense; the mordant comic tone of the dialogue; and, of course, the ever-present threat of violence, although the sanguinary quotient is much lower here than in a McDonagh play, with just a suicide and a kidnapping on the menu.
While McDonagh often combines these elements to make spellbinding theater with a real human pulse, Butterworth is like a chef working from an unfamiliar recipe. He doesn’t seem to have the proportions quite right, and the results taste stale. There are flashes of dark humor that register effectively, and the dialogue is often richly flavored, but Butterworth’s studiously quirky plot and characters lack the animating spark of authentic feeling. The play seems drawn from literary sources — an effect only enhanced by a pair of quotations from Great English Poets.
The American performers in Pepe’s production only enhance the sense of artificiality for the most part. Most effectively inhabiting this alien milieu is Chris Bauer, who plays the brooding Wattmore, recently fired from his gardening job at Cambridge U. following accusations of child abuse and intimations of pedophilia. Bauer’s accent is secure, and he brings a touching, rough-hewn tenderness to the role — you believe this quiet hunk of a man is emotionally engaged only with the natural world, and near despair when his intimacy with it is taken away from him.
Griffin (Clark Gregg), his devoted pal and roommate, walked off the job out of solidarity, and is now desperately trying to restore Wattmore’s reputation and retrieve their jobs. Money is the answer, and Griffin has several irons in the fire. He hopes to enter a Cambridge U. poetry contest with a hefty cash prize, and in the meantime suggests they take in a lodger.
Enter one Bolla Fogg, a waddling lump of a woman just out of prison and seeking to lay low for a while (although the idea that anyone, however desperate, would move into this squalid environment is fanciful if not preposterous). Bolla, who speaks with strange deliberation in brief, runic phrases, is a particularly stagy figure. The padded suit she lumbers around in only adds to the artifice of Mary McCann’s performance.
The tale’s quirky byways and layers of symbolism soon pile up; the effect is to obscure rather than enhance the characters’ humanity. Wattmore has joined the strange cult of a local named Dougal, another ex-gardener whom Griffin derides as “a mongol.” Bolla reveals a surprising intimacy with the work of Andrew Marvell and closes act one by reciting a couple of stanzas from “The Garden.” Another snatch of poetry — recited by a naked Cambridge student, in one of the more outlandish developments — arrives near the conclusion of the play.
In fact Butterworth apparently has been of two minds about which poet should usher in his tragicomic climax: In the original production at the Royal Court it was Shelley, but the text for this production includes a snippet of Donne. Onstage — surprise! — it was Shelley after all. Perhaps it changes nightly — the play might be more engaging if the audience were allowed to vote. (George Herbert, anyone?) But it’s not likely that any borrowed poetry could shed enough light on the foregoing proceedings to dispel the dispiriting sense of a playwright thoroughly bogged down in stylistic gimmickry.