If you could stop thinking about Pinter, Jez Butterworth’s “Parlour Song” would seem like a wonderful play. The three-character domestic drama about the collapse of a marriage (Pinter …) is finely written in lyrical prose studded with potent images (Pinter …) and tinged with unspoken nuance (Pinter …). But while it’s well served by a superb cast helmed by Neil Pepe for the Atlantic Theater Company, the piece sinks into its own symbolism. And unlike some poem-like plays we could mention (Pinter …), fails to generate its considerable internal tensions into the dynamism needed for shattering drama.
No doubt about it, Butterworth (“Mojo,” “The Night Heron”) has strong theatrical instincts. The Brit scribe opens his play with a disaster video montage (projected across the face of Robert Brill’s spare set of a suburban home) of factories, towers, bridges, skyscrapers, apartment blocks and buildings of all kinds being blown to smithereens.
Right after that display, the playwright introduces Ned (the amazing Chris Baer, his face a mask of pained confusion and quiet misery), a successful demolitions expert who really loves his work, but has no one to share it with. His neighbor and best friend Dale (best caught by Jonathan Cake in his awkward efforts to amuse) has seen all Ned’s home movies a million times, and his wife Joy (the magnetic Emily Mortimer, giving meaningful insight to every languid gesture) is bored with everything to do with him, his work and their marriage.
Something is clearly missing in Ned’s life, and if you need a broader picture of the problem, Butterworth is happy to paint one for you. Things have begun to disappear around Ned’s house. (“I mean my belongings. My things. The things I own. My stuff.”) At first, just a lot of junk goes missing, but, after a while, significant things like his father’s watch and the set of gold cufflinks Joy gave him can’t be found.
And now, having won the prize of his career — the contract to demolish the beloved old shopping complex that has long been the heart of their community — poor Ned finds himself persona non gratis in his own house. Especially in the bedroom, where Joy soon invites Dale.
Butterworth sets up the domestic situation so swiftly, so efficiently, and with such sturdy dramaturgy, it’s painful to watch the play talk itself out. For its part, the cast is so visually expressive and so articulate at the wordplay that the inert nature of the play barely registers. But in the end, language trumps conflict, action and resolution, and all the heartbreaking matters of the play resolve themselves, not in a fiery explosion of human feeling but in a cool shower of symbols.
The lyrical style and moody tone of this chamber piece calls for directorial restraint and Pepe obliges with a surreal production style that is all refracted light and shifting shadows. Lovely to look at, easy to listen to and seductively promising more than it delivers.