REVIEW: The Ferryman, and Contemporary Theater’s Endangered Pleasures

The FerrymanBy Jez Butterworth Directed By Sam Mendes

The Ferryman on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I watched Jez Butterworth’s sprawling The Ferryman with a peculiar mix of emotions—exhilaration tempered with mournfulness. Not that the play or production in any way disappointed me. On the contrary, it’s one of the most thrilling evenings of theater I’ve seen in a long time. So let’s start with the exhilaration.

It was no surprise, really, since I was a great admirer of Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a West End hit nine years ago that also came to Broadway with much of its British cast intact. A number of friends whose opinions I trust thought less of Jerusalem than I did, but they were quick to reassure me The Ferryman is far better.

I find the two plays very much of a piece, sharing in particular Butterworth’s signature way of imbuing rustic life in the United Kingdom with a veil of mythos and mystery, even a metaphysical, otherworldly dimension. I’d also say that both plays have some similar faults, including hyperbolic finales that slightly diminish the impact of the more nuanced storytelling that precedes them. For me, Jerusalem is in some important ways the more ambitious and out-of-the-box work, but TheFerrymanis more consistently successful.

Jerusalem is set in the English West Country woods; The Ferryman takes place in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981. Of course, the latter setting is an instant clue we’ll be immersed in violent political upheaval. The play delivers on that promise: there’s murder and revenge.

But (again, like Jerusalem) The Ferryman’sdarkest secrets—also, its delicious humor—are more allied to character than situation. An extended, multigenerational family live together on a farm. Daily life involves regular interruptions by visitors, both welcome and not.

The beauty of the work, both in the writing and Sam Mendes’ superb production, is the perfect sense of orchestration, coupled with an indelible and authentic feeling of lives truly lived. The Ferrymancould hardly be more large-format: running more than three hours, with 20-plus characters, it moves seamlessly from extended monologues and intimate, two-character conversations, to massive scenes involving nearly the entire assembled forces. Butterworth brings to all of it an ear for the poetry of common speech unparalleled among today’s playwrights.

Even more, he, Mendes, and the superb cast unerringly find the heart of every character and situation. This will be a very competitive Tony Awards year—To Kill a Mockingbird and the upcoming Glenda Jackson King Lear, just to start—but almost certainly, The Ferryman’s actors will dominate the Tony nominations. I’m betting on Laura Donnelly (an Olivier Award winner for the London production), Fra Fee, Paddy Considine, Dearbhla Molloy, and Fionnula Flanagan, but there could and should be several more. (A favorite of mine is the child actor Matilda Lawler, hilarious as a scrappy, even blood-thirsty little girl named—no doubt with a wink from Butterworth—“Honor.”)

The FerrymanBy Jez Butterworth Directed By Sam Mendes

Laura Donnelly in The Ferryman on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

So, why the mournfulness? Because as The Ferryman went on, I was more and more aware that its pleasures were deeply endangered, linked to a kind of theater that today’s economy has rendered nearly impossible… even (maybe especially) on Broadway.

A play of this size and scope—three hours, with nearly two dozen actors, each given a role of substance and nuance, and here each knocking it out of the park—would have been rare at any time. A huge payroll is expensive (on Broadway, very expensive). Copious rehearsal time of the kind required to bring this off even more so. In the world of for-profit commercial theater, we still see it in musicals (which also have correspondingly higher ticket prices). But plays? Hardly ever, because it’s nearly impossible to recoup the costs through ticket sales.

As it happens, The Ferryman is, perhaps beyond expectation, a bona fide Broadway hit. The performance I attended was sold out, the reception wildly enthusiastic. It’s a sure sign of success that beginning in February, the show extends with a new cast taking over, featuring some formidable names: Brian d’Arcy James, Holley Fain, Emily Bergl, Shuler Hensley, and more. In April, they will be joined by Blair Brown.

How wonderful that a serious, enormous play (not a musical) like this can turn out to have this kind of box office clout!

But will the second company, starry as it is, equal the amazing cohesiveness of the first?

More to the point—when The Ferryman finally closes, as inevitably it will—when will we see something so ambitious again on Broadway?

Like I said—exhilaration mixed with mournfulness.

The Ferryman is playing an extended run at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. For more information visit the website.


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