Nicky Silver, whose talent for titles and one-liners has catapulted him to the head of the class and earned him more unintentionally backhanded praise in the past couple of years than most playwrights earn in a lifetime, returns to his favorite subject of universal suburban Angst with "Raised in Captivity."
This mildly amusing, manic-depressive cartoon, which opened Friday in a very well-mounted, ably acted and cleverly designed West Coast premiere on the South Coast Repertory Mainstage, skewers and dissects its whitebread characters as deserving objects of derision. Then it tries to paste them together again with maudlin pieties that the playwright and David Warren, his superb director, can only hope will pass for poignant.
Theater critics have written themselves silly describing how Silver's absurdist tragicomedies invariably remind them of someone else's. He's been compared in one way or another to Joe Orton, Thornton Wilder, Sam Shepard, Chris Durang, John Guare, Mamet, Albee, Coward, Feydeau, Cocteau, Rabelais, Beckett, Chekov, Harry Kondoleon, Richard Greenberg, the Comedy Central cable channel and Shakespeare.
Paradoxically, the comparisons often sound like put-downs and special pleading at the same time. My favorite, because it's such a howler, comes from a prominent East Coast critic who described a scene in one of Silver's plays as "Shakespearean in its intensity, if not its language."
SCR artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson write in the program that Silver's latest is "deeper, more probing and less mischievous" than his previous plays. Do they mean perhaps that "Raised in Captivity" is like Maurice Chevalier without his accent? Because if they don't, I do.
Which is not to say that it's unrecognizable Silver. Like "Free Will & Wanton Lust," "Fat Men in Skirts," "Fetid Itch," "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" and "The Food Chain"--great titles, no?--this play veers wildly, thrives on a few outstanding moments and, as David Warren said in a recent Times interview, "needs a lot of direction."
The first act gets off to a funny start with a family tableau of the dysfunctional Bliss kids in Pleasant Meadows cemetery. We meet Sebastian Bliss (Bradley Whitford), a gay, celibate, free-lance writer, who lost his lover to AIDS 11 years ago and who has fallen for a never-met, self-hating pen pal on Death Row, and Sebastian's formerly anorexic, now-bulemic sister Bernadette (Julie Hagerty), who has minus-zero self-esteem, hysterical crying jags and an especially shrill case of logorrhea. Her dentist husband Kip (Steven Culp), who would rather be a painter, is along for the ride.
They have come to bury Miranda, Sebastian and Bernadette's mother, who got hit in the head with a shower appliance and died on the spot. We also learn that Bernadette has sung her mother's favorite song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," at the funeral, which might have put everyone at ease but for the fact that she and Sebastian have been estranged for years.
By the end of the first act, we also meet Sebastian's psychologist (Jane Kaczmarek), who turns out to be the funniest character in "Captivity," pen pal Dylan (Matt McGrath), a male hustler (also McGrath in a deftly played scene), and Miranda (also Kaczmarek), who comes back from the dead with the sort of Gothic secret that calls for a lobotomy in "Suddenly Last Summer." (Silver emphatically does not remind me of Tennessee Williams.)
If artist directors Emmes and Benson really believe Silver's half-cocked play is an "unflinching investigation" of forbidden topics, perhaps they flinch easily. Certainly they seem to presume that SCR's audience does. Yet I overheard one first-nighter--a conservative Orange County corporate arts leader and former Nixon White House staffer, no less--saying at intermission, "I actually like it!"
Incidentally, nobody registered any outrage that I could tell. Not so incidentally, "Raised in Captivity" has a second act with an extended parody of Oedipus and overlapping monologues by Sebastian and his pen pal that strike the evening's only notes of authentic emotion.
But unless you want your cup to runneth over with Silver's unconvincing, sappy-happy ending, there's little reason to come back for the second act. Nearly everything has been said, dramatically speaking, in the first.
* "Raised in Captivity," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2:30, 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $28-$38. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Bradley Whitford: Sebastian Bliss
Julie Hagerty: Bernadette Dixon
Steven Culp Kip Dixon
Jane Kaczmarek: Hillary MacMahon/Miranda Bliss
Matt McGrath: Dylan Taylor Sinclaire/Roger
A South Coast Repertory production of a play by Nicky Silver. Directed by David Warren. Scenic design: James Youmans. Costume design: Teresa Snider-Stein. Lighting design: Donald Holder. Original music and sound design: John Gromada. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Scott Harrison.