… enough is never enough …

This play is quite an accomplishment and delightfully imaginative:  using black comedy, the macabre and fairy tale, Philip Ridley creates a hilarious — but tense and compelling – social critique, and a parable of the downside of contemporary consumerism.  And the acting is phenomenal – witty, energetic, and totally on target.

Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson) and Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) are sweet, ”typical” young marrieds stuck in a cramped and crummy apartment in a dangerous neighborhood.  Their living situation becomes all the more intolerable now that Jill is pregnant, until Miss Dee (Debra Baker), a stylishly dressed realtor Fairy Godmother with a gleaming, golden portfolio, offers them a big house — free.  The house is a fixer upper in an abandoned neighborhood but Ollie’s handy.  Wary about things “too good to be true”, but filled with house-lust, they override their unease and accept Miss Dee’s realtor’s explanation for her gift:  by repairing the house, they’ll be making the first step toward improving the neighborhood.  It’s a win-win.  No catch.

Or is there?

On the first night, a vagrant barges in downstairs in the kitchen.  They’re terrified.  Cautiously but valiantly Ollie goes after the vagrant, and after a scuffle, and quite by accident, Ollie kills him.

Wonder of wonders, the kitchen immediately is transformed into a modern renovation to die for.  Only the vagrant, not Ollie, died for it.

A couple of more such accidents and their house has become more and more renovated with stunning taste, room by room.  Only there’s always more to do – the room for the expected baby, the garage, an upgrade on the original renovation … The murders of the vagrants move from accidental to premeditated.  And of course soon one “renovation” a night is not enough.  As Jill and Ollie become ever more thrilled, gratified, excited by their improved material surroundings, the number of vagrants they manage to do away with in a night escalates because, when it comes to material goodies, “enough is never enough.”

It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace, only Jill and Ollie are under no illusion that they’re doing the vagrants any good – they’re satisfying their own lust for stuff, especially home improvements, a lust, the playwright makes clear, that animates our materialist culture.  The wealth of some is created out of the destruction of others.

And so recognizable — the whole scheme depends on the fact that the vagrants are so cut off from society and their families, and of so little interest to the authorities, that they can be murdered without anyone knowing.

Everything works as it should:  new upscale neighbors move in.  They’re very friendly but have a complaint: as it looks to them, Jill and Ollie are drawing vagrants to the neighborhood by being kind to them, taking them in for a meal.   People only notice vagrants when thy appear, not when they disappear.

Ridley gives full dramatic and comic play to the inhibiting factors that we credit with keeping us on the straight and narrow.  Jill’s religion gives her second thoughts.  Ollie’s ethics intrude.  Can normal individuals remain sane while omitting serial homicides?   And what about our sense of common humanity? — Jill converses heart-to-heart and bonds with a vagrant.  Do these things stop them?

The perfect timing and emotional truth behind the actors’ takes on events is riveting.  A garden party for the neighborhood to celebrate the baby’s first birthday turns in to a frantic ballet, as Johnson and Verey play all the personalities of the neighbors speaking faster and louder as drinks are poured and at the same time play Jill and Ollie, in the throes of accelerating panic.   What a tour de force of acting, directing and writing!  That goes for the whole show.

Radiant Vermin, part of the Brits Off Broadway, is produced by Metal Rabbit and Supporting Wall in association with SOHO Theatre, and plays at 59E59 theatre in mid-town Manhattan through July 3, 2016.  For more information and tickets,  click here.