In the mid-1990s, the future seemed incandescent for several things: world peace (remember the so-called peace dividend?), the end of crime in America (the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) and the recording career of Alanis Morissette.
It also looked bright for Nicky Silver, a New York-based playwright whose The Pterodactyls and Raised In Captivity earned him consecutive Drama Desk awards for Best Play in 1994 and 1995. The pieces, both of which were picked up by South Coast Repertory, were break-out works for Silver.
But then he ran afoul of Ernest Borgnine. Seriously. The dude went after Silver for naming a 1998 play at San Diego’s Sledgehammer Theatre My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine, and the theater received a cease-and-desist order, forcing him to rename it My Marriage to Marisa Tomei. And while Silver hasn’t exactly been living on the streets since (he has worked at highly acclaimed theaters in New York City and Washington, D.C.), it wasn’t until a Broadway production in 2012 that we’d heard much from him on the Left Coast.
So, STAGEStheatre’s production of the 20-year-old Captivity is a perfect time to revisit Silver’s work and ponder whether it has stood the test of time, or if it was just a fitful spasm of caustic fury, signifying nothing. The verdict? It still has legs. Mainly because neurotic people and the families they call home, or run from in terror, are still around.
Sebastian (a likeable and tormented Robert Dean Nunez) has returned to the one place he least wants to be: the house in which he grew up. Or, more precisely, a nearby cemetery where his mother (Jill Cary Martin, seen in a hallucination at the end of the first act) is being laid to rest. His sister, Bernadette (a high-strung but funny Jamie Sowers), and her dentist husband, Kip (an affably dorkish Christopher Diehl), are there as well, and it’s clear that no one’s at her graveside to mourn for the departed matriarch. Thrown into this mix is Silver’s best comic creation, Hillary MacMahon (a nuanced and blisteringly damaged Christi Pedigo), Sebastian’s shrink, who stumbles around the stage in the second act like a much cuter but still self-blinded Oedipus, determined to get clean for her countless sins (the biggest of which, apparently, is being alive).
With that quartet of neurotic weirdos, the most well-adjusted people in this play are a killer serving life in prison, who is also Sebastian’s pen pal (eerily sympathetic Rob Downs), and a meth-addicted male prostitute, Roger (a solid Lucas Gust), who serves as the unintentional catharsis for Sebastian and the second act.
The play deals with inessential stuff such as mortality, faith, guilt, and the internal and external barriers that so many people erect to deal with or avoid them. Characters either react through stormy bluster or shutting down completely, but it’s painfully clear the one thing they so yearn for—genuine connection—is impossible. Unless it’s not. And while it’s a bit long-winded at times and Silver’s reliance on monologues occasionally comes close to derailing the comedic train, his constant application of the knife blade to the throat of the family dynamic—extended to society at large—always keeps things lively.
Director Jack Millis doesn’t do a whole lot with the production, but he also doesn’t mess it up (though a key confessional monologue from the therapist in the second act could definitely use some more lighting). What he does best is not play up the loopy lunacy; it would be really easy to just step on the accelerator and run over this family, as well as the entire well-mannered school of theatrical civility that Silver seems to be skewering. The bite is still there, but instead of exaggerating the madness, Millis and company take moments to focus on the halting attempts at honesty and intimacy these insular, incredibly fucked-up people are yearning for. That gives this very dark and, at times, uncomfortable play moments of deep poignancy, and it makes the play’s final image between two hopelessly flawed individuals resonate.
(One note for STAGES: Either add a line in the program that there’s an intermission, or announce it at the end of the first act. For once, I was just as confused as the rest of the sheeple whether the play was over or to be continued.)
Raised In Captivity at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 3. $18-$20.