Paradoxically, there couldn’t be a better or worse moment to stage “Vernon God Little.” Opening three weeks after the events at Virginia Tech, the play is a faithful, fast-paced adaptation of D.B.C. Pierre’s 2003 Booker Prize-winning debut novel about a 15-year-old on the run after his best friend has shot dead 16 of their schoolmates. Mercifully, potential accusations of bad taste are silenced by the sheer verve of the blackly comic production. Forget the American dream, welcome to the American nightmare.
“We’re talking accessory to murder here,” drawls drawn and scrawny Vaine (Penny Layden). Deputy Sheriff in the flea-bitten town of Martirio — barbecue capital of Texas, so we’re told — she knows Vernon didn’t pull the trigger, but in her blinkered view the world is divided into citizens and liars. “A liar is a psychopath who paints grey areas between black and white,” she tells him, threateningly. “I’m here to advise you there are no grey areas.”
That defiant, no-middle-ground tone is the keynote both of Tanya Ronder’s tightly-written adaptation — it feels like an original work — and Rufus Norris’ cartoon-like, helter-skelter production.
Living with his widowed mom (Joanna Scanlan) — his father’s body suspiciously never showed up — Vernon (Colin Morgan) is your typical disaffected adolescent. Inarticulate with boredom, irritation and anger, his typically messy, decadent lifestyle goes haywire as circumstances in the small town conspire against him.
His lazy, foul-mouthed attitude is undercut by his moral refusal to give in to the small-minded mores of those who surround and threaten to stifle him. That route leads him eventually through an absurdly biased trial to Death Row.
Abandoning Southern gothic for Southern grotesque, the thrust of the piece’s wild exaggeration is not the motivation behind the (unseen) massacre, but the town’s increasingly crackpot desire for retribution. That, and the media feeding frenzy.
Everyone becomes infected by the lust for notoriety, the selling of souvenirs, the desire to seize upon anything and anyone as grist for the mill of TV fame. Not for nothing does someone sport a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “I went to Martirio and all I got was this lousy exit-wound.” As a galloping satire on the land of opportunity, it couldn’t be more caustic.
The tone is jacked up still further by Norris’ staging. All 44 trailer-trash townsfolk, friends, foes, hangers-on and passersby are played by seven of the excellent nine-strong cast in gleefully bad wigs and Nicky Gillibrand’s artful costumes-that-taste-forgot.
Ringleader is the dodgy Eulalio “Lally” Ledesma, played with a hilariously shiny and cracked veneer by preening, fast-talking Mark Lockyer. Armed with camcorder, he inveigles his way into Vernon’s home, the arms (at least) of his naive mom, and on to TV with scene-of-the-crime news segments that swap self-aggrandizement for reportage.
Lockyer is also very funny as the accurately named Dr. Goosens, a creepy, Warhol-wigged psychiatrist whose preposterous diagnostic procedure involves rubber-gloves and an internal exam that sends Vernon hurtling for the exit and beyond.
In order to escape police and the lame-brains — including his mom who waits for a new refrigerator to be delivered rather than go her son’s trial — he gets money out of a spot of hilariously sordid blackmail and makes it to Mexico.
Via the simplest of means — a ramshackle truck wheeling round to turn into a bar, low-angled light with super-saturated color, bursts of joyous music — set designer Ian MacNeil, lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Paul Arditti vividly convey what is, for Vernon, a whole new world.
This is in stark contrast to the drab world they create for Martirio, a simultaneously dingy but wide-open space with bare door-frames and a sliding plywood back wall. Although everything looks beaten-up and disposable, the design is supremely clever, creating enormous fluidity for Norris’ fleet staging in which everything from line-dancing to an audience-voting prison execution show dovetail into one another at lightning speed.
Norris shapes a terrific professional debut from rangy Colin Morgan as Vernon. Although still at drama school, Morgan can turn his emotions on a dime. Onstage throughout, alive with contempt, he keeps the play alight. Vernon starts out as a slacker but Morgan invests him with focused energy.
That contradiction is typical of this gutsy production. It’s not merely the audacity of its vicious satire that impresses, it’s the way Norris winningly captures cramping moral tawdriness with rigorous theatrical extravagance.