In Will Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago Theatre staged last month, that play’s lone character assures us, at one point, that he’s a good person. Then immediately he amends the claim: “Well, not deep down.”
In Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, now on the boards in a darkly, dazzlingly funny production at CoHo Theater, Jill and Ollie tell us right away that they, too, are good people. But they, too, are inclined to offer a caveat:
OLLIE: We hope we are.
JILL: We try to be.
OLLIE: And yet . . . some of the things we’ve done –
Jill and Ollie, it turns out, don’t really know and are only very slightly inclined to think about, who they are deep down. But they’ve encountered someone who sees the kind of people they really are. Even when she’s only just met them, she can tell them about their own formative childhood experiences, how their flat is decorated, or about their favorite place to shop.
As she puts it — so sweetly that there’s no room for creepiness or menace — “Miss Dee knows what Miss Dee knows!”
She also has a little proposition for them.
She’s in charge of a quasi-governmental program called “the Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes,” which tries to kick-start the improvement of run-down neighborhoods. And because Jill and Ollie are the right kind of clients — he’s good with his hands and she has “oodles” of taste, plus they’re both “good people” — she will give them a house.
That’s right. Just give it to them. No strings attached. All they have to do is fix the place up.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, what seems at first like no kind of a catch at all — “All repairs and renovations to the property are your responsibility” — turns out to be a doozy.
It’s tempting to avoid any kind of spoiler and just say that the renovations involve a significant outlay of human capital. But it’s an early enough — and enticing enough — plot development that we’ll reveal it anyway: The home renovations occur magically (if that’s the word) when Jill and Ollie kill homeless people, whose corpses dissolve into fountains of “fairy lights” that transform whichever room they’re in.
“What’re you saying, Ollie? You killed a vagrant and he’s been reincarnated as a designer kitchen?,” Jill sputters, trying to make sense of the first, accidental incident.”
“Well . . . yes. Because isn’t that quite clearly what has happened?”
And from there we’re off on a road to hell paved with Christian bromides and greased with the couple’s growing greed.
Ridley dishes up this tale as a rapid-fire, tag-team recounting by Jill and Ollie to an audience that’s sometimes explicitly acknowledged, even co-opted. In part it’s the couple’s plea for understanding and absolution, but the two of them are so nervously, relentlessly cheerful, and their ethical qualms so readily turned inside out, that their spiel starts to feel more like a recruiting seminar or a timeshare sales pitch.
The script’s spare structure and propulsive pace leave a production with both great freedom and big challenges. Director Scott Yarbrough, in his first show since leaving the artistic director post at Third Rail Rep, is more than up to the task, keeping things brisk and clear even as Jill and Ollie breathlessly relate a year and a half worth of misadventures, and underlining key moments with smart, wry design choices (kudos, particularly to sound by Eric Lyness and lighting by Jennifer Lin).
The acting is, if you’ll pardon the pun, wickedly good. Chris Murray does some of his finest work in years as Ollie, a good-natured skeptic who doesn’t want to be left holding the bag but is helpless to resist his wife’s wheedling. Kelly Godell as Jill has a remarkable plasticity of expression and affect, zipping instantaneously yet convincingly from insufferable whining to girlish glee to petulance to deviousness to worry, and so on. (And her direct-address speech shortly after they’ve recognized the bizarre terms of their contract with Miss Dee is a brilliant look through the thin veil of “values” so many of us hold up to the world.)
Those two do the heavy lifting and the sprinting — especially in a chaotic (and overly long) party scene in which they portray not just Jill and Ollie but a half-dozen or so neighbors. Diane Kondrat, on the other hand, brings otherworldly power to the littlest details.
How does she know so much about them? And why is she called Miss D(ee)? Well, just note the look on her face early on, in a moment when the couple is about to leave without signing the contract. As Jill heads for the door, Miss Dee mentions Selfridges, a posh department store, and Jill stops in her tracks. Face turned away from Jill and towards us, Kondrat shows an absolutely chilling expression of calculation, malice and triumph: With a simple appeal to Jill’s consumerist heart, she knows she’s captured her prey, her shopping-mall Faust.
Every bit as impressive as Miss Dee’s laser-like flattery is the piercing pathos Kondrat shows as Kay, who may be another hapless homeless victim or perhaps Miss Dee in disguise, checking on the success of her project.
As that project reaches ever-greater levels of stylized, banal evil, Ridley’s satirical net snares the Adam & Eve myth and prosperity theology, keeping up with the Joneses and the callousness of global consumer capitalism; there’s even a late hint about the creation of dynastic wealth and the blithe, large-scale killing that can entail.
Maybe that’s just what happens, when good people only want the best.