The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, according to the poetry of William Blake. Alas, for the shifty denizens of "Jerusalem," which was inspired by Blake, that road also takes a detour into the land of squalid trailer parks.

Jez Butterworth's Tony-winning drama swashbuckles from Shakespeare to the "The Lord of the Rings" in its long-awaited West Coast premiere at San Francisco Playhouse. While this sprawling epic needs a bigger jolt of electricity to sweep us away for more than three hours, there's no denying the majesty of Butterworth's language and the startling scope of his vision. The first act drags, the carnal undercurrents lack pop and the sprites need more wonder, but none of this diminishes the lure of "Jerusalem," directed by Bill English through March 8.

SF PLAYHOUSEJohnny Rooster (Brian Dykstra, at right) and his mates watch a video of their latest wild party. Front to back are Lee (Paris Hunter Paul),
SF PLAYHOUSE Johnny Rooster (Brian Dykstra, at right) and his mates watch a video of their latest wild party. Front to back are Lee (Paris Hunter Paul), Davey (Joshua Schell), and Ginger (Ian Scott McGregor). ( sfp )

"Jerusalem" is nothing if not ambitious. This three-act narrative juxtaposes ancient and modern, mythic and tawdry in a bittersweet ode to things that get lost along the way during life, from youthful haunts to innocence. The playwright may be pining for his personal paradise lost, the despoiled beauty of the English countryside, but that sense of nostalgic yearning is as universal as it is piercing.

At the center of this trailer park opera is Johnny Byron (Brian Dykstra), a sleazy latter-day Falstaff peddling drugs and booze to teens while he slides into oblivion. Dubbed "The Rooster," this middle-aged antihero struts and bellows around his seedy mobile home, holding court to a coterie of party girls and lost boys. He's a former daredevil gone to seed, a subversive pied piper rallying the youth of the Shire with the siren song of the lord of misrule.

Among his merry band of misfits is the wannabe DJ Ginger (an incisive turn by Ian Scott McGregor), the befuddled professor (a wry Richard Louis James), the numbed-out slaughterhouse employee Davey (Joshua Schell), the dreamer Lee (Paris Hunter Paul) and Tanya (Riley Krull), the lass who fancies Lee.

On the eve of St. George's Day, this tribe of outcasts descends on Johnny's dilapidated trailer (a wonderfully fetid set by director English) to snort coke, chug hooch and celebrate the few rituals that still tie them to the history of rural England. The festival will be lame, they proclaim, but they're drawn to it nonetheless, harboring the desire to shed the trappings of civilization for a few precious hours. Even Johnny's burned-out ex, Dawn (a compelling Maggie Mason), can't resist the tug of the revels.

Nymphs, vigilantes and a wrecking ball all converge on this patch of "green and pleasant land" when Johnny receives an eviction notice from the city council. If he's not out of his encampment in 24 hours, they will bulldoze it.

Dykstra nails Johnny's power as a bard, spinning tales of giants and Druids and curses that entrance one generation of kids after another. He assures them he was born with a bullet in his teeth and a cape on his back. It's an intelligent performance that captures Johnny's smarts and his sins. If he misses some of Johnny's charisma, the gravitational pull he exerts on every woman in town, he evokes the combination of hubris and luck that a man would need to make his living cheating death astride a motorcycle.

Certainly Butterworth ("Mojo") taps into something primal in this odyssey. If this production doesn't give the supernatural elements of the piece (from fairies to ley lines) enough spark, the themes remain potent. Johnny embodies the call of the wild, the impulse to fight back against a world that would trample on an ancient forest to make a few bucks on real estate.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

'Jerusalem'

By Jez Butterworth,
presented by SF Playhouse

Through: March 8
Where: San Francisco
Playhouse, 450 Post St.
Running time: 3 hours,
15 minutes, 2 intermissions
Tickets: $30-$100,
415-677-9596.
www.sfplayhouse.org