When the producers at Miami Beach's Area Stage and Coral Gables's Florida Shakespeare Theatre discovered several weeks ago both troupes had scheduled a South Florida premiere of a work by the same playwright, they decided to join forces and create what they're calling the Nicky Silver Play Festival. During the two-month-long event, the 36-year-old Silver is being represented by full productions of his 1995 Raised in Captivity (Area Stage) and his 1994 The Food Chain (Florida Shakespeare Theatre). In addition, the combined casts of those comedies will appear in staged readings of Silver's Pterodactyls, Fat Men in Skirts, Fit to be Tied, and Free Will & Wanton Lust, with performances rotating between the two venues. Caught up in the hoopla, Silver himself was on hand for a Fourth of July weekend kickoff that included a script signing at Lincoln Road's Books & Books. Although it seems somewhat premature for this kind of attention, the festival nonetheless stands as quite an achievement for a guy who was selling women's accessories at Manhattan's upscale Barneys clothing store less than six years ago.
Chock-a-block with urban angst and dark off-kilter humor, Silver's comedies have elicited comparisons to Joe Orton's macabre, amoral tales and Christopher Durang's witty in-jokes for theater cognoscenti. Although this marks only the second time Silver's work has been presented in South Florida (last year the now-defunct ART-ACT staged Fat Men in Skirts), the native Philadelphian has enjoyed productions of more than a dozen of his plays in the U.S. and Europe, with New York City runs relegated to smaller theaters. Despite the fact that his first off-Broadway commercial outing in 1995, The Food Chain, enjoyed moderate success, next season's premiere of The Maiden's Prayer will take place at the 120-seat nonprofit Vineyard Theatre on East Fifteenth Street. That's a long way from Times Square. Miami is even farther away, of course, and the current fest's offerings show every mile, as Silver's downtown wit uneasily settles into the subtropics.
Of the two main draws, Raised in Captivity was written and produced first. Its opening act, titled "Bread and Water," introduces us to the daily diet of neurosis that plagues Sebastian Bliss (Matthew Glass) and his twin sister Bernadette (Hilary Kacser). They meet for the first time in years at their mother's graveside following a service that, as Bernadette says thankfully, didn't contain "too much God." A freelance writer -- his only serious relationship is with a death row pen pal named Dylan Taylor Sinclair (Erik Fabregat) -- Sebastian cheers up his grieving sister with the news that his career is kaput, he's $41,000 in debt, and he hasn't had sex since his lover died of AIDS eleven years ago.
Adding to his problems, his overly possessive therapist Hillary (Ellen Rae Littman) has a breakdown when he attempts to fire her, and a knife attack knocks him out of commission and into Bernadette's spare room to rest and recover. Not that her place is a safe haven. Bernadette's husband Kip (Paul Tei) creates chaos by giving up dentistry to pursue painting, then concocts a crackpot plan to move his unwilling wife to a primitive African village and leave a wacked-out Hillary to care for Sebastian. By the end of the second act ("Forty Dollars and a New Suit"), the twins find solace for their troubles in each other.
Mixing barbed witticisms with often obtuse imagery, Raised in Captivity takes risks by heightening its comedy with exaggerated situations: Kip uses only white paint on a white canvas to avoid noticeable mistakes, Sebastian receives a moving visit from his dead mother, and Hillary repeatedly maims herself in self-prescribed penance. Hip surrealism, magic realism, and comic absurdism are a lot of styles to juggle simultaneously, and too often Silver allows them to collide in jarring juxtapositions.
Faced with the challenges of such wide-ranging comedy, director John Rodaz charts a straightforward middle course (imagine a Seinfeld episode presented by the folks who create the Hallmark Hall of Fame). His direction has the effect of tethering the tale's soaring flights of fancy, harshly illuminating its darker side, and eliciting unvaried performances of limited range. For instance, Glass nicely handles Sebastian's kvetching but fails to weave his character's introspective musings into a convincing portrayal of the isolated man's escalating inability to deal with the world. Even more disappointing is Kacser's unimaginative performance, utterly lacking in personality.
Charged with carrying off Silver's loopier plot twists and most pretentious prose, Littman and Tei meet with mixed success: Littman tackles the therapist's bizarre journey from Park Avenue to the outer limits by offering up a loser who's born to suffer, either at the hands of her clients or her own; Tei delights as the sane man among lunatics before Kip loses himself -- and the audience -- to his own madness. Fabregat, displaying quiet intelligence as the prisoner, fares best, spared Silver's ricocheting mood swings.
Neither set designer Darin Jones nor costume designer Anne Toewe seems to have any better grip on Silver's band of misfits than does the cast. Both ignore the characters' wild personalities and differing economic stations, and Jones's set forces exterior scenes at Bernadette's house to be played in the graveyard while placing other scenes on a raised playing area so far upstage that the venue's intimate advantages are wasted.
Elsewhere in the Silver fest, Florida Shakespeare Theatre presents the playwright's most successful comedy, The Food Chain. First staged by Washington, D.C.'s small Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (in a 1994 production directed by the author), it was reworked to include a more upbeat ending before its successful off-Broadway run a year later.
Presented without an intermission, the play follows three self-centered Manhattanites as they chase after their elusive lovers. Deserted after one week of marriage by the man she had met only two weeks earlier, Amanda (Sharon Kremen) calls a crisis hotline for comfort. She reaches busybody Bea (Kathleen Emrich), who's only too willing to listen -- and offer advice. Bea predicts that errant hubby Ford (Kevin Scotti) will return: Sex, she theorizes, is the eternal food chain. As she tells Amanda: "Men rule the world, but penises rule the men. And who rules the penises? We do, darling."
Bea's adage accurately defines narcissistic male-model Serge (Paul Cameron), the dream lover of the obese Otto (George Contini), who arrives at Serge's apartment with a bottomless bag of Little Debbie treats and a pathetic plea that Serge renew their brief fling of four years earlier. Decked out in his Calvin Klein briefs for his own no-show lover, Serge doesn't have time for Otto's obsession. Instead, the stood-up Serge takes off in search of his lover, with Otto in hot pursuit; ultimately the duo lands on Amanda's doorstep, where all the story lines converge.
Filled with stand-up comedy rants and sitcom coincidences, The Food Chain works from a foundation of uncomplicated humor: Amanda has enough neurotic observations on modern living to rival those of Richard Lewis, and Otto's feeding frenzies could fuel a Jim Carrey sequel to Dumb and Dumber (Fat and Fatter?). Gifted comedians and actors, Kremen and Contini breathe uproarious life into Silver's lines and convincingly propel his far-fetched narrative. Pummeling cushions, jumping on furniture, and strangling the air, Kremen enlivens Silver's diatribes with Amanda's riffs on everything from snippy waiters to persistent middle-age acne to the political enslavement of women by purse manufacturers. And while Contini hits his share of punch lines, he milks even more laughs out of his padded fat suit and Otto's ravenous appetite. Demonstrating an ingenious method of eating mini doughnuts, he skewers them on a pretzel rod and chomps through them as if they were an ear of corn.
Despite the ample funny business here, director Juan F. Cejas muzzles the jokes, too often confusing screamingly funny with merely screaming. Although Silver's characters have no trouble expressing themselves, Cejas seems to feel that any line is funnier if shouted by red-faced actors. Worse, he turns the characters' egotistical bent for dominating conversations into pronounced monologues. To cite one example, during Amanda's phone discussion with Bea, Cejas repeatedly has the lights fade on the hotline operator, leaving Amanda screeching out her half of a comedy routine alone.
As with Raised in Captivity, the set for The Food Chain hinders the production: Hans Seitz's scenic design gives us New York apartments stripped of any character or clutter, but still unwieldy enough to necessitate lengthy set changes.
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Those who recognize the Bloomie's logo on Amanda's T-shirt and the references to Barneys will undoubtedly enjoy Silver's odes to Big Apple living. As for others, they can still appreciate the arrival of a witty new talent, despite the fact that these Silver pieces appear somewhat tarnished and dull owing to a lack of much-needed polish.
Raised in Captivity. Written by Nicky Silver; directed by John Rodaz. Through August 17. For more information call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings."
The Food Chain. Written by Nicky Silver; directed by Juan F. Cejas. Through August 16. For more information call 445-1119 or see "Calendar Listings.