Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, currently playing at the Music Box Theater, takes its name from a hymn that, according to director Ian Rickson, is held dear by the English people. “Its words,” Rickson writes in the director’s notes, “have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness.” It is quite fitting that none of the characters can remember the song, which is on the tips of their tongues until near the very end of this sweeping, insidious play. Jerusalem is about English people, yes, but it is also about a whole mess of cultural ambiguities that relate not just to England but, really, to the human condition.
Themes that run through Jerusalem are not neat or tidy; they frequently clash and sometimes directly contradict one another: The state of the nation is strong; the nation is in decline. You can’t go home again; you can’t run from your past. Same shit, different day; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We are a highly sophisticated species; we are, in the end, animals. Technology helps us; technology has made us emotionally disconnected idiots. See the world; there is no place like home. Cultural messages are messy, and so is Jerusalem, but in increasingly profound ways.
The central character is, like the themes of the play itself, a tangled mess of contradictions. A middle-aged, black-out drunk who has long lived illegally in a trailer on a small clearing in the woods in Wiltshire, England, Johnny “Rooster” Byron (played with scenery-chewing awesomeness by Mark Rylance) is the kind of perpetual adolescent that both English and American culture has long been fascinated with: he is equal parts Peter Pan, Stanley Kowalski, that self-destructive, brilliant guy that Kevin Bacon played in the 1982 film Diner, and that self-destructive, benignly predatory guy that Matthew McConaughey played in the 1993 film Dazed and Confused (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”).
Rooster spends his days drinking, partying, and creating a nuisance. As the town around him becomes more and more upscale, a growing number of locals voice their desire for Rooster to simply go away; the local government would prefer this, too, since there are plans to develop his patch of woods into a housing development. All this doesn’t stop many of the locals from buying drugs from Rooster, whose trailer has for decades been a place where local teens hang out, get high, and listen to Rooster’s tall-tales. The fact that most of the kids who kill time gobbling drugs and guzzling booze with Rooster are safer with him than they are in their own homes is just one more of the many contradictions this play toys with.
Another is the characters’ tortured relationships with both the past and the future. Rooster’s tall-tales are the only things that make the past interesting for many of these characters, whose lives all exhibit a deadening sameness that is clearly never going to change. Rooster has done nothing but swagger around his trailer since the early 1980s; his behavior is beginning to catch up with him, but he’s utterly incapable of changing into anyone else, except perhaps, eventually, The Professor (Alan David, hilarious and terrifying), a senile, alcoholic professor emeritus who wanders frequently through Rooster’s woods in a blithely befuddled search for Mary, who might be a dog, or his long-dead wife. Ginger (Mackenzie Crook, also hilarious and terrifying), a man in his early 20s, is as close as one can be to Rooster, which is not very close at all; Ginger is clearly a Rooster-in-training, and while Rooster is well aware of this fact, Ginger is not.
The rest of Rooster’s entourage consists of a group of stubbornly provincial teenagers, who don’t hesitate to mock him behind his back. Like Ginger, they have no intention of admitting to themselves that they, too, will be Rooster one day, and ridiculing him helps them keep such realizations at a distance. While many of the kids, like Davey (Danny Kirrane, very good), never question their humdrum, lackluster lives, a few, like Lee (John Gallagher, Jr., fine, but could use a few more sessions with his dialect coach), dream of leaving home to seek adventure on their own. There are plenty of girls around to party with and, occasionally, to fuck; alas, I would have liked to have heard more from at least one of them.
Butterworth never dashes his characters’ chances of making changes, but always makes absolutely clear just how hard real change can be. This is especially the case when complacency is, if boring, also so comfortable, and the past—at least as reinvented by Rooster—so awesome and powerful. Rooster’s actual past—which has resulted in a young son that he’s utterly incapable of caring for or even relating to, and at least one ex-lover, the boy’s mother (Geraldine Hughes, heartbreaking), who views Rooster with contemptuous disappointment—is pathetic, and very much his fault. So he takes refuge in tall-tales, which take on a growing desperation as the future closes in on him.
Butterworth doesn’t tie up all the loose ends at the end of Jerusalem. Which is as it should be: how can one solve a nation’s identity crisis, resolve the human condition, untangle the mess of cultural baggage, and explain the appeal of suspended adolescence in a mere three-plus hours?