By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
“Rooster” Johnny Byron has been banned from every pub in Flintock, Wiltshire.
He used to be a daredevil on a motorcycle. Now he favors his bad left leg, and he’s chiefly a teller of tall tales, most of all his own – that he and all the Byron men were born with hair on their chests, that they were born with all 32 teeth, that they were born talking.
Could be that last tale is true because Johnny Byron does not shut up – not to the county bureaucrats who are trying to evict him from his derelict trailer in the woods, not to the alcoholic professor and the henpecked barkeep who see his place as a respite, not to the changing horde of teenagers who come to Rooster to buy drugs and to escape from everyday life.
Just how you look at Rooster changes minute by minute in Jez Butterworth’s provocative play Jerusalem, whose title – echoing a beloved English hymn that puts forth the scepter’d isle as a possible heaven on earth – suggests that Johnny Byron’s sense of his homestead is wishful thinking more than anything else.
But your ideas about Johnny are also colored by the remarkable performance of Mark Rylance, who won the Tony for best actor in a play for this role Sunday night, and whose driving, charismatic and inexhaustible performance makes you think, for just a moment, that Rooster’s views of his world may just be right.
The setting (by the wizardly costume and set designer known as Ultz) is a clearing in the woods, where a battered Airstream trailer is surrounded by discards – an old tire, a crappy-looking loveseat, a disco ball hanging from a tree. There Johnny Byron has lived for 29 years, dispensing drugs to local teenagers and watching them grow up and drift away.
The local authorities are none too pleased about all of that, however, and they’re set to throw Johnny out and put a 72-house subdivision in his place. That is, if they can stop the partying, drive off Johnny’s “band of educationally subnormal outcasts” and his stalwart lieutenant Ginger, and force Johnny to listen to sense.
Butterworth, a much-praised English playwright, has built Jerusalem with layer upon layer: It helps to know about St. George’s Day and William Blake, about the anthem “Jerusalem” and the fact that, from Flintock, Stonehenge lies just down the road. But he’s also created a sad, hilariously funny and ultimately moving portrait of an indomitable man (and perhaps an indomitable country) who keeps rising to the occasion no matter what.
Rylance is a wonder, and he’s supported by a fine cast: Mackenzie Crook is especially good as the sad-sack contrarian Ginger and Alan David as the Professor, oblivious but canny all the while. These losers are all remarkably articulate (the males among them, anyway – Butterworth has given less weight to the few female characters): John Gallagher Jr. (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) makes an appealing boy named Lee, who’s about to flee England entirely, and Danny Kirrane is funny and affecting as Davey, an underachiever who knows his limits.
Johnny Byron turns out to be both less and more than you suspect, and Jerusalem is a little that way as well: At three hours long, it eventually tries your patience at the same time that your mind is sprinting to keep up with all that’s going on. It’s like the endless carousing on a St. George’s Day that seems to stretch into infinity: Just when you think it’s time to go home, you find yourself wishing “more, more, more!”
By Jez Butterworth
Where: The Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., New York City.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 21.
Running time: Three hours, with one intermission after Act I and one short break between Acts II and III.