As theater teams go, they're an odd couple.
Nicky Silver is the savagely funny playwright whose recent hits include "Pterodactyls" and "Raised in Captivity." David Warren is the soft-spoken man who has directed the New York stagings of these dark comedies.
Silver is a rapid-fire font of self-deprecating one-liners, able to elevate angst to an art form in a single phone call. Warren is comparatively reserved and seemingly introspective--the yin to Silver's yang, though they switch roles when push comes to shove in the rehearsal hall.
These days, the Silver-Warren collaboration is in play once again, as the director readies the West Coast premiere of "Raised in Captivity," which opens at South Coast Repertory one week from Friday.
Silver, who came to California earlier in the rehearsal process and has now gone back to New York, is confident that Warren will do right by his baby. And he's not the only currently hot playwright who places such trust in Warren.
The 34-year-old New York native--who has also helmed productions by such talents as Richard Greenberg, Jon Robin Baitz and the team of Michael John LaChiusa and Jeffrey Essmann-- has begun to develop a reputation as a playwright's director.
And he couldn't be more pleased. "I love working with new writers or I don't think it would happen," says Warren, over a glass of lemonade, at a West Hollywood cafe. "When the collaboration works, it's kind of like a love affair, and I've been very lucky."
Indeed. Warren, who is now on his fifth outing with Silver, directed the premieres of "Raised in Captivity," "Pterodactyls" (for which he won an Obie Award) and "Shrinks." He has also worked four times with Greenberg, including the South Coast Rep premiere of "Night and Her Stars" in March of 1994 and the premiere of the writer's adaptation of "Pal Joey."
One month after "Night and Her Stars," Warren staged Jon Robin Baitz's "The End of the Day" at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood.
According to Warren, there's a learning curve. "With any given writer, each time we work together again I know the plays better and the way he or she thinks. Each time we work together, it's easier and it's better."
The trick to the delicate art of working with a writer on a new work is to be flexible and to listen. "It's like making friends," Warren says. "You put out little feelers. That happens on a very personal level and also it goes deeper because you begin to understand, when a writer writes a certain kind of a passage, why."
Silver had been toiling away in the salt mines of Off Off Broadway for nearly a decade before his writings first began to garner widespread attention, a little more than three years ago.
Shortly after that, New York's Vineyard Theatre brought Warren and Silver together. "It really was aesthetic love at first sight," Warren says. "We just see eye to eye on so many things. We complement each other. What we bring to the room are very different sensibilities that meet."
The admiration is mutual. "We do work phenomenally well together," says Silver, speaking by phone from his home in New York. "He brings a sophistication, both literarily and stylistically, that I perhaps lack, and I bring an angst and passion that he maybe doesn't have."
"He finds a compassion in the plays that I'm pleased and maybe a little surprised by," Silver continues. "And we're very protective of each other emotionally: David has a temper and I can navigate problems, just as I will [sometimes] burst into tears and he will scream at [whoever has caused the problem]."
The director has become a master at deciphering the particular mix of pathos and edgy satire that is Silver's stock-in-trade. "Nicky Silver's plays are very high-concept plays, with a lot of theatrical style, surprising shifts, all sorts of things that demand a high-concept production," Warren says. "What the play asks for is a lot of direction."
But that doesn't mean that Warren views himself as being in competition with the playwright. "What I do--and I think it's one of the reasons that writers like working with me--is that I don't think of myself as a writer at all," he says.
"I would never sit down and try and write anything, but what I'm good at is asking questions," Warren continues. "The more questions I ask, the more I understand the play, and the more challenged the writer is, in a healthy way."
The son of two teachers, Warren knew by the time he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1983 that he wanted to direct. He got his foot in the door of the profession by serving as an apprentice to major theater directors and designers, such as Des McAnuff, James Lapine and John Arnone.
Then, after a year and a half of assisting, Warren began to land jobs of his own. In particular, he found himself drawn to the challenge of premiering new works.
Other directors may feel more free when the playwright is either dead or absent, but Warren welcomes having the playwright there in the room. "I love what writers have to add to the process," he says.
His role, as he sees it, is to facilitate. "The first time, when you do a premiere of a play, as a director you have to be aware that, in some way, you're like a midwife," Warren says. "You're helping to give birth to something, as an interpretive artist, but not as the creative artist, the creator of the text.
"So I don't go into those sort of collaborations, on premieres of plays, thinking I have to have a great big directorial take and shake it up."
The key is mutual respect. "In the premiere of a play, every change that the writer makes becomes part of the text that never changes," Warren says. "That demands a certain respect from the director, a certain sensitivity."
Besides, the playwright has the advantage. "At that point, the writer does know more than I do, and I know that," Warren says. "The writer has all the answers."
Sometimes, the playwright can also help solve directing quandaries. "I can be struggling with an actor and the writer can say one thing [about the character]--like 'She's lying'--and that will clear it up," Warren says.
"Good actors often ask questions and I can answer many of them that the writer can't," he continues. "Other times, it's the reverse, and the writer will say something that's more interesting.
"I can hear what he has to say about the rhythms and the music of the play, and I get the actors to serve those rhythms without having them feel like they're just being told, 'Don't take a pause,' " Warren says. "So what happens in the production is the comedy, but the emotional truth is also served."
And that is exactly what Silver needs. "He has helped me enormously in terms of cutting, shaping," the playwright says. "And I like to think I've helped him dress a little better. You almost never see him in shorts now, even in the dead of summer."
"RAISED IN CAPTIVITY,"South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Prices: $17-$38 ("Pay What You Will" performance, Oct. 21, 2:30 p.m.). Phone: (714) 957-4033.