When Rooster Byron exhales whatever he’s toking, the smoke comes out in two long streams that might make you think of a fighter jet taking off.
That’s not the only high-octane image that comes to mind in describing “Jerusalem,” Jez Butterworth’s white-hot play.
And in Johnny “Rooster” Byron, as played with cyclonic power by Mark Rylance, Butterworth has created the most memorable troublemaker since Jack Nicholson’s Randall Patrick McMurphy upended the cuckoo’s nest.
Rooster’s fading claim to fame is that he was once a daredevil motorcyclist, flying over buses and tanks, until one challenge too many ended his career and left him with a bum leg.
Now he lives in a ramshackle mobile home in the middle of the woods, catnip to the local teens hiding out from abusive parents and looking for the booze and drugs and mostly the safe haven that Rooster supplies in equally massive doses.
He’s not entirely admirable, but he is magnetically appealing. Ask him a question and he’ll deliver a tall tale about his encounter with a 90-foot giant who claims to have built Stonehenge.
That might lead to an interrogation by Ginger (the brilliant Mackenzie Crook), one of Rooster’s more age-appropriate cronies, as to how this giant went unnoticed by the BBC. And from there to a critique of that organization’s sad demise.
Imported lock, stock and silver Airstream from London’s Royal Court Theatre, “Jerusalem” takes its title from William Blake’s brief, beautiful poem about an idyllic England that has sold its soul to industrialism. Not far from Rooster’s roost, a sterile housing development is taking form. The local council wants this bad seed gone.
It’s St. George’s Day, there’s a local fair with morris dancers and a maypole. And there’s the mystery of Phaedra, a 15-year-old girl last seen in a fairy costume, wings and all. Would Rooster know where she’s run off to, her brutish, menacing stepdad wants to know.
A three-hour epic, “Jerusalem” begins with a fairy singing the lovely poem set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, which is shattered by rock music blaring from the speakers atop Rooster’s home. From there we’re off on a harrowing but frequently hilarious ride, staged with compulsive energy by Ian Rickson in a setting by Ultz that combines nature in bloom and humanity in wreckage, lit with dappling realism by Mimi Jordan Sherin.
We know it will not end well. It’s to Butterworth’s credit that we are left so conflicted by this meeting with a force of nature, in the best play of the season.
At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)