San Francisco Playhouse’s ‘Jerusalem’ squanders technical excellence with erratic plot

Jerusalem-(Jessica-Palopoli,-San-Francisco-Playhouse)

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Despite its religious title, Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” is absolutely anything but. Inspired by the poetry of William Blake, San Francisco Playhouse’s latest follows a day in the life of a 40-something, drug-dealing squatter and his eccentric clan of inebriated, amphetamine-craving teenagers.

Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Brian Dykstra), a modern-day Falstaff and former die-hard daredevil, is subject to eviction and has a day to leave behind his dingy mobile home and beloved encampment — a refuge of sorts that has been around for generations of lost girls and boys whom he supplies with endless nights of binge-drinking and substance-snorting. This odd antihero draws in the neighborhood misfits not only with his bag of goodies but also with his Shakespearean rhetoric and faraway tales of mythical creatures.

It gets even stranger. Among his tribe of delinquents is a bewildered professor on LSD (Richard Louis James), the aspiring local DJ-slash-unemployed-plasterer, Ginger (an outstanding Ian Scott McGregor), the beer-bellied cow-slaughterer, Davey (Joshua Schell), and the list goes on.

This three-hour theatrical booze-fest is every bit as exhausting as it sounds — no matter how entertaining it may be at certain moments with its extensive cast of oddball characters. Butterworth’s work is also nearly impossible to digest with a script full of obscure British slang, even with the extensive glossary provided by the company — which proves to be even more draining when you’re trying to follow what is unfolding onstage while flipping through the list of words on your lap.

On the other hand, SF Playhouse’s production of this Tony-nominated play exceeds all the technical standards that make for a great theatrical work, as all its shows do. The acting is superb to say the least, the Wiltshirian accents are spot-on and the set looks like something out of an actual trailer park.

McGregor’s acting in particular slightly surpasses that of the rest of the talented cast, and the Bay Area native delights as the ever-so-loyal underdog in the band of dissidents.

Julia Belanoff enchants as Phaedra, the teenage runaway decked in fairy gear from head to toe, who opens the first two acts with a haunting a cappella of the hymn “Jerusalem.”

The cast also features a dazzling Devon Simpson, a UC Berkeley undergraduate, as Pea — one half of the underage female twosome that frequents Rooster’s encampment.

Bill English’s set design skills are unmatched. Rooster’s dilapidated trailer lies above a rural ground covered with empty beer cans, cigarette butts and broken dreams. It’s as if the cast and crew actually threw a party at a trailer park in the middle of nowhere and had the land bulldozed and placed on the SF Playhouse stage.

In any case, these aspects of the production can only retain one’s attention span for so long. Admittedly, there are several moments of clarity in the piece when the beauty in Butterworth’s writing becomes clear and rises above the British babble. However, once the play reaches the two-hour point, it becomes more and more difficult to stay connected to the story at large. By the end of this tiresome production — which plays out like a trashy party with a peculiar Bard vibe — one will simply be left wondering what exactly was the point and purpose of the story.

Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].

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