NEW YORK — The opening Thursday night of Jez Butterworth’s remarkable “Jerusalem” solidifies what looks to be the most competitive Tony race for best play in years. Joining such other potential nominees as “War Horse,” “Good People” and “The [Expletive] With the Hat,” Broadway can boast for what feels like the first time in a long time a packed stable of satisfyingly original American and British plays — each a bona fide possibility as the trophy winner.
How gratifying it is that “new” — not “revival” — will be the most important word on prognosticators’ tongues in the run-up to the June awards ceremony. Butterworth’s rousing play at the Music Box Theatre is an extremely funny and, ultimately, surprisingly profound contemplation of a fading time in Western civilization when iconoclastic giants walked among us.
At the miraculous hub of the sprawling play — it clocks in at roughly three hours — is the Falstaffian performance of Mark Rylance, delivering his second steamroller turn of the Broadway season. Back in the fall (in the very same theater), he portrayed the showboating vulgarian Valere in the droll if unbalanced “La Bete.” Now, he’s the hyper-dynamic force of nature once again, playing a burnt-out onetime professional daredevil who lives a debauched life out of a trailer on the edge of a subdivision in the English countryside.
Never mind that Rylance’s stoned and sunburned Johnny Byron, sporting tattoos and earrings and acting like a grizzled 13-year-old, dispenses drugs to minors and neglects the son he has left in the care of the boy’s mother (Geraldine Hughes). In a sense, “Jerusalem” — the title derives from a beloved song in the English hymnal — is an homage to the nobility of a nation’s past, of a spirit tied to the land, to a lust for living large. It’s not so much that “Jerusalem” glorifies Johnny as recognizes in telling glimpses what he represents in the national character and how that character has changed.
Rewardingly, too, “Jerusalem” is a large canvas, and under the resourceful guidance of director Ian Rickson, the cast of 16 — a veritable horde for a straight play on Broadway — adds to the evening’s vivid spectrum. In particular, John Gallagher Jr. and Mackenzie Crook, as two of the latter-day Lost Boys who glom onto Johnny for fellowship and a reliable high in the woods, imbue their characters with authentic feels for the insecurities of young men unsure of their identities. Alan David is splendid, too, playing a local eccentric who finds in Johnny a kindred lunatic spirit.
The plot-driving happenstance of “Jerusalem” is Johnny’s status as public nuisance No. 1. Though his trailer — brought to life in all its decorous shabbiness by set designer Ultz — is parked on what he claims to be the Byrons’ ancestral land, the residents of the adjacent housing development want him and his noisy cocaine and weed parties out. The evening begins with a dazzling juxtaposition: A young woman (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) in angel’s costume attempts to sing a verse of the title song, only to be drowned out by the blasts of rock music from Johnny’s loudspeakers.
Butterworth, author of the atmospheric, small-time gangster play “Mojo” that was a success at Studio Theatre this season, allows us to clearly see why Johnny is so irresistible to the band of “educationally subnormal outcasts” who gather at his encampment. He’s a relic of old England, and yet he’s also the embodiment of eternal youth, an uber-rebel: pirate, biker and rocker rolled into one. (If the play’s dissolute young folk had dropped into a theater a few decades earlier, they’d have filled out the ensemble of “Hair.”)
Of course, Johnny’s completely ineffectual, too. He’s all pointless bravado, his quests poignantly quixotic. “Beloved spongers,” Johnny cries, “We are going to behead the mayor, imprison the Rotary Club!”
The play takes wing ever more fleetly on Rylance’s astonishing exertions. His Johnny is one of those enthralling beings whose flaws seem to evaporate in the exuberant boil of magnetic personality; how totally he wins us over is apparent in the character’s most awkward moments, when he uncomfortably tries to strike up a conversation with his little boy (Mark Page). You find yourself feeling much more for what the man has lost than the boy.
It must be noted, though, that some on this side of the Atlantic — the piece started at London’s Royal Court Theatre — will struggle with “Jerusalem’s” Englishness. Some of the references have been altered for American audiences, and, still, non-Anglophiles may feel at times they should have boned up on snooker and candy floss and the finer points of English country life.
Then again, there is nothing the tiniest bit obscure in what Rylance is creating on the stage of the Music Box stage. A great performance establishes its own universal lexicon.
by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson. Sets and costumes, Ultz; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; sound, Ian Dickinson; original music, Stephen Warbeck. With Danny Kirrane, Molly Ranson, Max Baker, Charlotte Mills, Barry Sloane. About three hours. At Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 43rd St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.