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Parlour Song

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Emily Mortimer and Chris Bauer.
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Systematic erasure is no joy when the world is a pencil. And for Ned, the dire-dreaming demolitionist at the center of Jez Butterworth's inky but uneven psychological romance Parlour Song, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, the rubbing never stops.

His hairline was the first thing to go, sometime in the last decade, though as armed with a secret bottle of pills, he's not yet ready to give up the follicle fight. His waistline followed not long after, but he's got a plan to bring that back, too. There's also the little matter of romance with his wife, which used to manifest itself in games of Sexy Scrabble ("If you can spell it, you can do it") but is now relegated to hushed, rushed conversations before bed and during dinner. Where is the life that late Ned led?

Don't answer yet. Butterworth's play is more than an over-the-hill, coming-of-middle-age tale for people who are themselves staring down that specter. The past, after all, is in the past, and besides, Ned (played with an appealing, sputtering hopelessness by Chris Bauer) has plans. What matters is the present, and that's vanishing even more quickly than Ned's youth.

It started off with a pair of cufflinks he couldn't find when he needed them. But as the disappearances of his possessions accelerates and begins encompassing stone birdbaths in padlocked yards, Ned starts to wonder if he isn't also losing his mind his well. Is existence one giant conspiracy, with his distant wife Joy (Emily Mortimer) and has best friend Dale (Jonathan Cake) at the center of it all? Or has the strain of living in pre-manufactured suburbs and subsiding on funds earned from blowing up old shopping centers at last played its final card?

Butterworth packs a surprising amount of personal paranoia into just 90 minutes, making a more compelling conundrum of Ned's crumbling life that you might initially expect. The relentless maze of clues, dead ends, and diversions never loses its twistiness, even in the play's closing moments. Neil Pepe's taut direction stirs the arid uncertainty that fuels the play, and the performances - especially Bauer's making the protracted suffering of the impishly neurotic Ned into a detailed art - highlight every nuance of those who subsist on either deceiving or being deceived.

Jonathan Cake and Emily Mortimer.
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Despite much that's right about Parlour Song, it's marred by an unsettling reliance on Dale as a narrator. Most every scene begins or concludes with his casual explanations of what's happening and why, more often for mere casual effect than for any particularly necessary reason. There's a welcoming air about it at the beginning of the show, which contrasts Ned's loss of tiny items with his job destroying full structures, and at the end, in which the actual and fantasy worlds collide with chest-collapsing force. But in between, it's invariably more invasive than insightful.

It also gives undue weight to his character, the least interesting of the three and the one with the most peripheral grasp on the action. Bauer expertly manages Ned's progressive breakdown, nurturing it from a vague suspicion into a full-out psychosis with just the force of his voice and an increasingly scattered physicality. And Mortimer is so prim and so precise that, even against your own suspicions (and Ned's) you can't help but believe her insistence that she's not stealing her husband's life away. Together, the two form an exacting portrait of a marriage on the rocks with a twist; their intertwining stories need no additional help to blossom.

Cake is as solid as he can be as Dale, whose purpose is as a double-edged confidant for the struggling couple. But Butterworth overemphasizes his importance as an observer, and doesn't let through enough of the lives he's observing. The character is so underwritten, a cipher whose admissions of having a wife and kids could just be one more ploy for attention, that there's not much for Cake to do but push Ned and Joy closer together, yank them farther apart, or turn toward us to fill in the gaps.

That there are any that need patching is itself a minor mystery. Joy and Ned, and the actors playing them, have such bubbling chemistry, they can transform a discussion about Joy's midnight lemonade binge into the tangiest of marriage-therapy fodder. Was it an alibi to cover up her latest theft of his property? Does he believe her? Why or why not? Butterworth raises enough tantalizing questions in these five minutes to power an entire play. He doesn't need help from Dale, or anyone, to make the wounded lovebirds of Parlour Song sing their song of sorrows lost and found.

Parlour Song
Through March 29
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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