Theater Reviews : Nicky Silver Skirts Little in Disturbing, Funny 'Fat Men'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There ought to be a warning on Nicky Silver's plays: "Not for the faint of heart." But any survivor of a vicious emotional family war should appreciate the bizarre and funny world of Nicky Silver's "Fat Men in Skirts," a tale of cannibalism, incest and murder at Sledgehammer Theatre.

San Diego's Fritz Theatre staged the Southern California premiere of Silver's work before South Coast Repertory produced Silver's "Pterodactyls" in March. Now Sledgehammer has remounted the Fritz production through June 18.

"Fat Men in Skirts," which, incidentally, sports not a single fat man in a skirt, tells the story of Bishop Hogan (Peter James Smith) and his mother, Phyllis (Diane Addis), the only survivors of a plane crash on a desert island. In the face of starvation, they eat their dead fellow passengers and develop a taste for human flesh.

"Who's for dinner?" Bishop asks cheerfully.

At the show's start, Bishop is 11 years old, a stutterer cowed by his mother. After five years on the desert island, the roles reverse, with Bishop controlling his mother through his superior strength. As her mind begins to snap, they find comfort in each other, ultimately sleeping together.

But what works on a desert island becomes a bit dicey in the real world when they are rescued and reunited with Bishop's philandering father, Howard (Louis Seitchik). Phyllis evolves into an agoraphobic with a shoe fetish and Bishop into a murderer, killing women to get shoes for his mother.

Silver has been pegged as an absurdist, but there's a ring of emotional truth in this fantastical concoction. Instead of dreamscape, think nightmarescape.

Consider the plane crash as a metaphor for a mother and son feeling abandoned by a detached husband-father; consider the mother's anger at her husband being transmuted into her son's rage against the world--a world he devours as his only way to connect with it.

Silver's characters serve as "metaphors for everyone outside the mainstream who can't get in," the playwright said in a 1994 interview. "All the characters in my plays are me, me, me, desperately me!"

But if Silver is an angry young man, he also is an extremely funny one. And it's amazing how a spoonful of humor can make the animosity go down.

"You're trying to drive me insane," Phyllis tells Pam, her husband's pregnant mistress, who has been pretending to be the maid. "That's cruel. And redundant."

When Phyllis criticizes her son for the messy way he has just butchered his father, Bishop exclaims: "Everybody's a Monday morning quarterback!"

And when a mental patient confides to Bishop that she tried to kill herself, he responds: "Well, try, try again, I always say."

Bryan Bevell's direction of this well-cast play clarifies the Oedipal conflicts as the rage bellows between the jokes. Addis' wry Phyllis exudes icy anger through exquisite deadpan delivery. Smith's taut Bishop smartly navigates a tough journey from a trembling 11-year-old child to a 16-year-old fury.

Seitchik plays both Howard and Dr. Nestor, the father-figure psychiatrist, with just enough emotional distance to catalyze hostility. Johanna Nemeth, the understudy for Tiffni Jellinek, silkily slips layers of suppressed anger and fear into otherwise screwball portrayals of Pam and Popo Martin, the fellow mental patient enamored of Bishop's celebrity. Big deal, Popo reasons, if Bishop is famous for killing and eating people--he was on "Ricki Lake"!

A great help to the sense of reality--and such a wild confabulation requires all the reality it can get--is Jeff Benham's set, remnants of a real airplane askew in sand.

The title, "Fat Men in Skirts," is, in the end, like the play--loaded with more meaning than appears on the surface. It refers to a fat man Phyllis recalled meeting long ago who liked to dress in skirts. Her mother had told her not to acknowledge his existence.

But how do you not acknowledge the presence of a fat man in a skirt? And how do you not acknowledge a son who has become a killer and cannibal?

A running theme in Silver's plays, from "Fat Men in Skirts" to "Pterodactyls," is the high price of denial. In a political climate where it is becoming increasingly unfashionable to be different, Silver delights in rubbing playgoers' noses in the world of misfits.

* "Fat Men in Skirts," Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego. Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends June 18. $10-$15, seniors 20% off, students $5, fat men in skirts free. (619) 544-1484-7505. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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Peter James Smith: Bishop Hogan Diane Addis: Phyllis Louis Seitchik: Howard/Dr. Nestor Tiffni Jellinek: Pam/Popo Martin Johanna Nemeth (understudy): Pam/Popo Martin Sledgehammer Theatre of the play by Nicky Silver. Directed by Bryan Bevell. Sets: Jeff Benham. Costumes: Deborah Ayers and Elisabeth Riordan. Lights: Al Kane. Producer: Maria Mangiavellano.

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