Tony Award-winner Mark Rylance gives a fearless performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a daredevil turned drug dealer in “Jerusalem” at the Music Box Theatre. Commanding the stage by sheer force, he doesn’t let Johnny’s lame leg crimp his swagger as he struts outside his trailer to the delight of the teenaged and twentysomething hangers-on that congregate there.
In his 50s, Rooster is a party animal — always surrounded by youthful revelers but never really close to any of them. Like Jackie in “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” at the theater across the street, he’s a boy in a man’s body who either can’t or won’t grow up. But unlike Jackie, he never lets us see the blood and guts beneath his steely surface. It’s business as usual despite the eviction hanging over his head, the son he lets down by not taking him to the fair as promised and the menacing local who thinks Rooster’s hiding his 15-year-old runaway daughter.
Yet for all the energy in Rylance’s performance and galvanizing events in Rooster’s life, “Jerusalem” seems laconic. Funny, easygoing and likable, it’s ultimately frustrating in its shiftlessness. Rooster doesn’t change or evolve in the course of the play — no problem, that seems to be the point. But neither does he reveal himself. Rylance exults in Rooster’s bravado: He’s fascinating and flashy, but he’s an emotional Fort Knox. There’s no getting inside him, making his story an intriguing curiosity without much heart or soul.