Heart Cravings

Playwright Nicky Silver insists he wrote The Food Chain, which is enjoying a raucous if sometimes shrill run at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, as relief from a more painful play he had to discontinue. Some may think this is the equivalent of choosing, say, electric shock to the tongue over amps pumped through the genitals. How could anyone but a stage artist obsessed with splitting hairs that only he can see claim that this merciless "romantic" comedy is an alternative to his usual sadomasochistic comic instincts? The way loneliness and neediness breed destructive relationship patterns is the process over which Silver has caricatured his characters (and, almost, himself) in scabrously funny plays New York wouldn't touch until Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth committed itself to staging Silver.

Strangely, sympathetic predecessor Christopher Durang transformed hemorrhaged relationships into gaudy red vaudeville successfully for years in New York. But while Catholicism and psychoanalysis and theater itself drive Durang to fractured distraction, mothers and fathers--especially mothers--are Silver's typical monster makers. You must be willing to revel in the monstrous and identify with it on the most distressingly intimate terms to laugh with Silver.

Not everyone wants to. Even so, director Marjorie Hayes has seemingly vindicated Silver's claim that The Food Chain is a "palate cleanser" by orchestrating it near the farcical heights to which the playwright aspires. A quintet of big-city denizens rush around two different high-rise apartments on the same late night. They shout, preen, smooch, beg, and wave guns, and all pursue their unrequited love with the single-mindedness that prompted the creation of the restraining order.

Amanda (Jenny Gravenstein) is a self-dramatizing New Yorker poet whose indie filmmaker husband, Ford (Jack O'Donnell), stepped out for a walk and hasn't returned for weeks. Pacing and grandly gesturing around the room as she vomits a compulsive torrent of anger and self-doubt, she engages a crisis-hotline worker named Bea (Linda Comess) in a brief history of her brief marriage, pausing on the way to reveal that she was once a fat, unpopular victim in high school. Meanwhile, shirtless and in bicycle pants, runway model Serge (Bryan Matthews, giving his funniest, most focused work after a considerable absence) awaits the late arrival of his new boyfriend. But he is hijacked by Otto (a surprisingly subtle and touching Scott Milligan), a very large, very Jewish former lover who can't put down the donuts or let go of his hypercritical, unseen mother, who keeps phoning to ask whether he and Serge are back together yet.

Playwright Silver is ruthlessly efficient in his attention to humiliation and thwarted desire; moreover, he knows how self-loathing and arrogance are two sides of the same narcissistic coin. Whiny Otto, splayed on the floor, can't stop talking about his girth even as he feeds it, yet wonders what he can do to make Serge "love me" (emphasis, again and again, on me). Serge, who saunters with narrow but widely swinging hips, loves to discuss his pecs and his abs and his butt, but is reduced to a petty contestant for affection the first time he experiences rejection. They are cartoons, of course, but their humble essence is recognizable insecurity about personal appearance; Silver acknowledges it regularly in the script, and director Hayes keeps it foreground and fast-paced, with an emphasis on the actors' almost improvisatory comic energy pulsating in this gallery of undesirables.

Jenny Gravenstein as the poet who, by her own admission, always "strays" to discuss some social injustice unrelated to her current crisis, has a husky-squeaky patrician voice and a hand-fluttering, forward-leaning gait that suggests she is a pampered cheerleader about to turn a cartwheel at any moment...and spill everywhere. Her lengthy first-act duet with Linda Comess as the ultra-Semitic Bea is both bravura and a tad enervating for us, the audience. That's true of the whole of Circle Theatre's The Food Chain: Those ticketbuyers who don't appreciate its frantic rhythm early on will grow disgusted with all the abject, high-volume pining. But if you're willing to confront the ugly potential for romantic desperation in everyone, then you will sail through this firestorm, laugh frequently and hard, and come out cleansed. At least, until you meet your next obsession.

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Jimmy Fowler