KPBS AIRDATE: DECEMBER 4, 1996
If family functions this holiday season fill you with dread or drag you down, spend an evening with Nicky Silver’s family, and you’ll feel a whole lot better. No dramatist, except for maybe August Strindberg or Eugene O’Neill, succeeds so completely in making ‘family’ feel like a four-letter word. All three mix a heavy dollop of autobiography into their onstage family fruitcake. But the two dead playwrights served up straight drama. On a Silver platter, the ingredients are equal parts anger, pain, guilt and one-liners.
“Free Will and Wanton Lust” is one of Silver’s earlier works, a 1990 effort which won the Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play. Sledgehammer Theatre is hosting the Southern California premiere, directed by Bryan Bevell, who brought Silver’s “Fat Men in Skirts” to the Fritz, and then to Sledgehammer, last year. “Free Will” is more clumsily crafted than “Fat Men,” or Silver’s wonderful “Pterodactyls,” which was presented at South Coast Rep last year, or his “Raised in Captivity,” which appeared at the Fritz earlier this year. All of them feature Silver’s unremitting familial themes: absent or dissipated fathers, mothers in total denial, dysfunctional sisters, brothers with identity crises (sexual and otherwise) and incest as salvation. All are dripping with angst, laced with arsenic and incredibly enough, hilarious at times.
The first act of “Free Will” is positively manic, the high-toned repartee suggestive of Noel Coward on acid. First we meet Claire, a shallow and callous mother who has a lifelong penchant for young men, and her latest paramour, Tony, who appear humorously posed on the PR material like some insouciant American Gothic. Claire’s children enter — the angry, alcoholic, pregnant 15-year old announcing her suicide and the confused and drugged-out 20 year-old presenting his fiancée. But Claire and Tony barely come up for breath, obliviously continuing to grope each other, drowning in each other’s drivel: “You smell like Hershey’s kisses”; “[Your] semen is a youth serum.” Later, Claire confesses emotional absence from her children: “My indifference was sincere,” she says ingenuously.
At some point, every member of the family gets to talk conspiratorially to the audience: about life, loneliness or the eternal nature/nurture debate that haunts children searching for the source of their rage and despair. In fact, the second act is all monologue, a schizophrenic change in pace that feels like we’ve gone from the manic to the depressive phase, but the protracted confessionals blaze with periodic explosions of insight.
Director Bevell has a firm grasp of the rhythm of Silver’s deadly humor. But he encourages his actors to go over the top, physically and emotionally, as when Michael Douglas Hummel’s hysteria as Philip erupts in screamy bursts. But when there’s restraint, as in Diane Addis’ chillingly uncaring Claire or in Laura Arnold’s casual wrath as Amy, the production sizzles. Half the title boasts “Wanton Lust,” and there’s plenty of sexuality here, which is curiously downplayed in Aarón Pérez’s Tony, in favor of smarminess, but heightened in his seduction of Laura Lee Juliano’s frumpy intellectual fiancée. The ensemble is strong, the production is potent, the play is provocative, and your family will look all the better for it.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.