Zoo story

Nicky Silver is probably the hottest young playwright lurking in off-Broadway right now, with his last play The Food Chain easily his most critically and financially successful New York production to date. Additionally, since the '90s began his works have been staged dozens of times by big-city theaters, including three Dallas productions in 1996 alone. His national popularity comes as somewhat of a surprise, since Silver's comedies are crude, violent, kamikaze assaults on family values that would not seem to sit well with "the little old lady from Dubuque," as snotty New York critics used to call the rest of us.

If Eugene Ionesco and filmmaker Peter Jackson were a couple, Nicky Silver is the baby they would adopt and raise into a disgruntled, ungrateful adult, taking revenge on his daddies with scatalogical two-acts using Ionesco's smug futility and Jackson's warped-aesthetic compulsion for finding beauty in the carnage of a car accident.

Although some would question whether the label "comedy" belongs on Silver's morbid material, there is really no reason to get your panties in a knot over the outrageous methods he employs in what are, at core, tender and empathetic elegies to the disappointments of family. He seems perfectly aware that the more depraved aspects of his bloodline sagas are pretty blunt instruments as theatrical devices go. Silver wraps his plays in depravity like a little kid who is insecure about the present he made for you and has festooned its package with gaudy colors and tacky baubles. But beware the theater company that does not understand Silver's agenda, or the director who cannot orchestrate the playwright's tricky two-part harmony between sorrow and lunacy. And his slasher-flick sight gags can be wielded by lazy, strident actors like dead-baby placards at an anti-abortion protest.

Dallas ticket buyers so far have been fortunate to encounter Nicky Silver performed at the machine-gun pace his sick romps demand. Yet the two Silver plays performed here earlier this year provided enough of a pause that each character could have an eloquent moment of dignity. It was really just an opportunity to reload the ammo between raucous bullet sprays, of course, but those pauses are necessary lulls in any successful performance of a Silver play.

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The Open Stage's Fat Men in Skirts, which featured the lead actor chewing on the licorice entrails of a baby doll, was easily the most confrontational production. The fact that audiences were drawn past the sensationalistic gore to the show's scared-little-boy heart--a pitiless dissection of two parents who use their own child against each other--made Fat Men a nimble triumph.

Pterodactyls, produced by New Theatre Company, was more cerebral material. But this tale of an HIV-positive prodigal son returning to confront his class-conscious family also kept its pathos close to the surface. As the son builds a dinosaur skeleton in the family living room, fractious betrayals and confessions wind him down to a dim, freezing-cold extinction. It was a smashing finale.

Now Pegasus Theatre steps up to the plate for the third Silver production, but swings the bat a little too wildly. Its discordant production of Raised in Captivity could be used as evidence to support either of two reigning theories about the playwright: We'll call them Nicky Sucks and Nicky Needs a Gentle Hand.

The proponents of Nicky Sucks will contend that Pegasus has merely exposed Silver as the most overrated playwright currently making a few bucks off the American stage; for them, his puerile butcher's-block humor is too much to bear for just a few self-evident observations about siblings, parents, and children.

The Nicky Needs a Gentle Hand camp, where this critic resides after long and careful consideration, contends that Silver's rich mother lode cannot be tapped by audiences without an extremely astute actor-director team that employs the gross stuff as a sly, striptease-style warmup to the insightful stuff. This treatment demands a certain level of sophistication and respect for the playwright. Pegasus Theatre, which for its original comedies boasts one of Dallas' most faithful theater audiences, is clearly more comfortable going for the broad laughs. Silver the playwright suffers mightily as a result.

Raised in Captivity begins with the reunion of the forlorn journalist-wannabe Sebastian (Kevin Keating) and his belligerent sister, Bernadette (Gwen Templeton), at the funeral of their mother, Miranda (Andi Allen), who died when a loose shower head bopped her on the cranium. Bernadette, who doesn't know whether to laugh or scream at any given moment, has for the past few years lived in a jealous snit over Sebastian, who at 16 left home to attend Yale. Bernadette's hasty marriage to a dim-witted dentist (Jim Hopkins) only has increased her feelings of inadequacy.

Sebastian's life has been far from romantic: He lost a lover to AIDS, has managed to see only one rather pretentious think piece printed in Vanity Fair, has been drawn into an epistolary affair with a deceitful convict (Derikk Webb), and cannot escape the clutches of a needy psychologist (Allen) who finally blinds herself as an act of contrition for her unworthiness. ("They all leave me!" she moans about her patients.)

All of these characters converge, in physical form or as a dream apparition, under the roof of the home of Bernadette, who is desperately trying to fabricate the loving family she never had as a child. Raised in Captivity, like most other Nicky Silver plays, makes visceral references to death, birth, blood, guts, lust--in short, the horrifying limitations of the body when confronted with human desire.

Unfortunately, Pegasus director Mark Fleischer cannot seem to distinguish between Silver's low comedy and high drama, to the extent that this production feels like a mud slide through which the actors occasionally poke through to display their gifts. Templeton is the most fascinating of the performers and emblematic of the show as a whole. She's a loose cannon, shifting between spittle-flying tirades and vulnerable expressions of pseudo-nurturing. Keating, as Sebastian, finally discovers his character in the second act, too late to rescue the production. Andi Allen as Mom and counselor and Jim Hopkins (doing a cool variation on Charles Nelson Reilly) as the spacy dentist are the production's reliably funny anchors.

Raised in Captivity is a zoo story of disgruntled adults, roaming around their cages with exposed teeth and childish appetites. Since both the characters and their audience are left hungry at curtain time, you can only blame Pegasus Theatre for withholding the red meat.

Raised in Captivity runs through August 31. Call 821-6005.

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