Wisdom around town murmurs that you shouldn’t read anything about The Ferryman before seeing The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s new three-hour-and-change family thriller which opened Sunday at Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre. Given Butterworth’s armrest-grabber of an ending, wisdom would be correct (although it would technically be just as correct about every other new play). But wisdom, increasingly intent on abating art into buzz, would also leave out most of what gives The Ferryman its most beautiful ingredients.
The Ferryman grips you, that much is true. Save for a brief prologue set in a back alley, the action in the latest piece from Butterworth (Jerusalem, The River) bounces off the walls of a country farmhouse that’s equally mammoth and claustrophobic (a remarkable design by Rob Howell). If, once you’re in this house, once you’ve met the swearing, enchanting Carney family, you find yourself quickly swept up in the action of a clan of endlessly busy farmers and daughters, of characters drawn remarkably quickly and confidently from bickering conversations around the hearth and rounds of memory from indomitable family elders, if you find that the legend of this family builds in your heart and mind in equal parts with the dread of some unspoken but surely forthcoming haunting, then consider that a credit to Butterworth’s text in the hands of director Sam Mendes.
The Tony and Oscar-winning director is always best on the proscenium, and here he takes Butterworth’s pyramid of a thriller and stages it with violent tension — the great curiosity being that two of the play’s three acts have no right to be so damn enthralling. The Ferryman focuses on a former revolutionary and father of seven (Paddy Considine, a force), whose complicated family dynamic (particularly involving his sister-in-law, played with a quiet blaze by Laura Donnelly) grows doubly vexing after a long-missing body resurfaces, posing a new threat to the Carneys. The thing is, more than halfway in, it’s not quite clear why or how the stakes became so exorbitantly high (especially because the Thing threatening the family is a Thing everyone already knows). But it’s a play of physical and emotional tension, a testament to Mendes’ ability to unearth the anxiety in a dance party and Butterworth’s talent for history; here, the playwright lays down eerie mythos for the Carneys’ past generations that gives way to a volatility — even one rooted in kindness — for its present ones (richly played by the spectacular ensemble).
But with all the tension, it’s almost better to think of The Ferryman without thinking too much about it. It’s easy to find yourself overly occupied with where it’s going than where you’ve just been, and there’s a certain detriment in that; the age of Peak Twist and that damn wisdom around town erases some of the more elegant elements of the production, those gorgeous landgrabs of tone that add to the allure of the Carneys and the fraughtness of their connection to an ’80s Ireland in the throes of revolt. This is a kitchen drama that only double-faces into a thriller, and it’s a thumping good one — a well-built, well-executed, heaping helping of kinetic suspense that departs from genre convention and casts children’s tantrums and grandparents’ tirades as red herrings for which pieces of this Rube Goldberg machine will end up exploding in the climax. But don’t let the screams distract from the beautiful quiet. Conflicted as the duality may be, the Carneys find a way to both catch their breath and hold it in tight; audiences should be prepared for a genre-bender that demands they do the same. B+