Playwright Nicky Silver may be too clever for his own good.
Early in Sledgehammer Theatre’s Southern California premiere production of his “Free Will and Wanton Lust,” it becomes apparent that this family drama is no “Thanksgiving on Waltons’ Mountain.”
When a sex-hungry married mother tells her eager young lover not to worry about the couch because she can reupholster it in the morning, it’s clear that the writer is a funny guy but one who’s clearly working from the dark side.
The witticisms fly at a Neil Simon-esque rate, but within a dysfunctional family where everyone lives unhappily ever after, tortured by a smorgasbord of incest, violence and sexual confusion.
Where is the playwright going with all this? It’s unclear. As stimulating and painfully amusing as all his work has been, from South Coast Repertory’s “Pterodactyls” and “Raised in Captivity” to the Fritz Theatre’s “Fat Men in Skirts,” this 1990 play is more about punch lines than great art.
Still, it’s a fun ride, helped here by a director and cast who know where the jokes are and who hit the buttons without mercy.
Diane Addis, so good as the incestuous, shoe-obsessed mother of a serial killer in “Fat Men in Skirts,” does another elegant Silver turn as Claire. She’s a seducer of young men and mother of two: a 15-year-old daughter, Amy (Laura Arnold), whom she ignores with flair, even when the girl shows up pregnant, single and desperate; and Philip (Michael Douglas Hummel), the son she adores, but who is a writhing mass of insecurity, sexual confusion, anger and longing.
This brittle Oedipal trio are the setup. When Claire’s 24-year-old lover, Tony (Aaron Perez), meets Philip’s fiancee (Laura Lee Juliano), complications ensue. And how.
Bryan Bevell’s subtle direction not only gets the mordant wit but also hints at the emotional subtext of the outrageous banter. Under his direction, the actors capture the pain and loneliness of these sex-obsessed characters, each, ironically, so unable to touch and heal the other.
Arnold’s Amy conveys this pain even between pratfalls, as does Hummel’s impassioned Philip. Unfortunately, the writing fails to make sense of their relationship.
David Ledsinger’s set design is simple and heavy on the cellophane, which is appropriate for these separate, Saran Wrap-covered lives. Judy Watson’s costumes establish the extremities of character difference, and Pauline Duhig’s choreography is dreamy, particularly in the scenes between Tony and Philip’s girlfriend.
There is no doubt that the characters as well as the fluid wit in “Free Will and Wanton Lust” leap off the stage. Had Silver more fully realized what he wanted to say or show with these characters, the play might have made the leap from promising to important.
* “Free Will and Wanton Lust,” St. Cecilia’s, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 15. $10-15, students $5. (619) 544-1484. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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“Free Will and Wanton Lust,”
Claire: Diane Addis
Amy: Laura Arnold
Philip: Michael Douglas Hummel
Vivian: Laura Lee Juliano
Tony: Aaron Perez
A Sledgehammer Theatre production of a play by Nicky Silver. Directed by Bryan Bevell. Sets: David Ledsinger. Lights: William Zukley. Costumes: Judy Watson. Choreography: Pauline Duhig. Stage manager: Leah Nellman.