In Ibsen's Peer Gynt, the yarn- spinning hero soothes his mother on her deathbed by concocting the benign fantasy that they have both embarked on a sleigh ride to the gates of heaven, where the mother is admitted as a VIP, watched by adoring multitudes. By smoothing her transition to non-existence, Peer, of course, makes things easier for himself, too.
In Butterfly Kiss, the latest play from the New York dramatist, Phyllis Nagy, there's a black variant on this ritual of collusive make-believe, though the parent's death here is not from natural causes. Combing her mother's hair with the barrel of a gun, joining her in an invented song, and reassuring her with lies about being married with children, the 25- year-old lesbian heroine eventually blows the woman's brains out.
Weldon Rising, Nagy's last play, also focused on a murder. That, though, was the random killing of a gay man in New York, an act which was constantly replayed so as to explore the roles of the people who witnessed it. Jaggedly comic and refreshingly unpious, it explored the surprising non-solidarity of the gay community in the face of such violence, and, implicitly, recommended a re-examination of responsibilities.
Based in the prison cell where Lily (excellent Elizabeth Berridge) awaits trial, Butterfly Kiss keeps jumping back to points in her past which may help to explain her matricide. Where possible reasons are concerned, though, both she and we are spoilt for choice. This, alongside the fact that too many of the subsidiary topics (like the public's fascination with serial killers) are flirted with rather than tackled, gives the work a strangely diffuse, non-cumulative feel.
In a wittily outrageous manner, the play would have you believe that murderers and screwed-up families are as normal and American as blueberry pie. Nagy uses a free-for-all tragicomic form - the past and present surreally share floor space and dramatised episodes jostle with direct addresses to the audience - to impart a heightened sense of just how 'normal' Lily's folks are.
There's a moment towards the end of the first half which vividly conveys this family's dysfunction. Lily finds herself at a replay of her mother's wedding, the guest-list now swollen to include not only her future child-and-murderer, but her husband's mistress, Lily's lesbian lover and the man whom her lepidopterist father put her up to seducing when she was 14. The already insecure mother (Susan Brown) throws her bouquet at her child-to-be, who misses it, the flowers winding up in the clutches of the lesbian lover. Crystalised in this dream-like sequence is the whole burdening business of having to be an emotional substitute. Used by her father as a stand-in for himself in the affair he engineers with the man, Lily is also gripped on to by her mother as an almost erotic replacement for the absent husband.
Steven Pimlott's well-acted production keeps the traffic flowing smoothly around this shifting diagram of a work, though there are times when the action is pitched too low down to be seen from the stalls. Looking like an adolescent version of Susan Sontag, Berridge's laconic, downbeat Lily manages to hold the piece together, even if the play ends up not really answering such questions as why she didn't kill her father instead, or what the outcome of her trial was.
Almeida Theatre, N1 (071-359 4404)Reuse content