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THEATER : The Silver Standard : Formerly fat, permanently gay, mordantly witty--playwright Nicky Silver spins modern neuroses, family dysfunction and even AIDS into darkly comic dramatic gold.

March 05, 1995|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Nicky Silver sits on a bench in New York City's Union Square Park not far from the Vineyard Theatre, the site of last season's acclaimed production of his play, "Pterodactyls," and where his new work, "Raised in Captivity," opened to excellent reviews last week.

A photographer snaps away, capturing the 34-year-old playwright in his usual sartorial splendor--penny loafers, white socks, khakis, vest, tie, shirt and overcoat.

"It is a little comforting having a uniform," says Silver, his owlish glasses glinting in the sunlight. "It gives one an identity. Otherwise, I'm so very bland."

Hardly.

Silver has, in fact, been making a name for himself by being anything but bland. He has been described by a friend as "the love child of Morticia Addams and Liberace," and his wild and darkly comic plays challenge all the pieties of the day.

Back inside the Vineyard Theater, he can't help but betray the edgy ebullience behind his demure outfit. "I'm an organic writer," he says, letting loose with a tornado of camp gestures and rapid-fire chatter interrupted only by puffs on a cigarette. "I only eat brown rice and gluten. Well, actually, that's not true. I eat Snickers bars and tuna-fish sandwiches, Chinese food twice a week. I'm so rigid, so very rigid. . . . Do I seem unnaturally loquacious to you?

"Maybe it's because the sound of my own voice is like Beethoven to me, though it's been known to give other people a rash." He rubs an eye. "I've had something in there all morning and can't seem to get it. Oh, well, never mind. I'll just have my eye plucked out later!"

Just a little over a year ago, Silver was merely the puckish boy wonder among the latest group of promising playwrights. Then "Pterodactyls" won both Newsday's Oppenheimer Award and the Kesselring Prize, prestigious nods honoring early works, and suddenly a much wider theater audience was sampling and applauding his particular brand of outrageousness. On March 17, "Pterodactyls" will open in Southern California at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

In Silver's work, as in his conversation, the one-liners come fast and furious. But so does the unfocused rage and Angst among a raft of needy and self-absorbed characters who are simply trying to find their place in the world.

The dislocations in "Pterodactyls" center on Grace, a WASPish, alcoholic social butterfly, and her loony, doom-ridden family who are stand-ins for the last survivors of a new American Ice Age. The freeze sets in when Todd, the prodigal son, returns to announce, amid ditsy Noel Coward-like banter, that he has AIDS.

"Raised in Captivity," which the New York Times called "a cause to celebrate," examines the cyclical nature of good and evil, death and rebirth through Sebastian, a depressed gay writer, and his bulimic twin sister, Bernadette, who reunite to bury their mother who's been killed suddenly by a flying shower head.

All of Silver's plays are declarations of war against the notion of a cozy "Ozzie and Harriet" America. Those volleys are usually lively and funny at first, but audience whiplash occurs when Silver's protagonists suddenly turn ugly: gay young men knowingly infect others with AIDS; a teen-age pop-culture buff abuses and rapes his mother and murders his father; a fat boy obsessively pursuing a narcissistic model puts a gun to his mouth. The audience is left to puzzle over the playwright's moral ambiguities.

"It angers me that people think that if you ask that something be understood, you are asking that it be condoned," says Silver. "People must accept responsibility for their actions, but I don't think it's OK to tell people, 'You don't deserve to live. You are no longer a human being.' Human potential is rather limitless and we have no business giving up on it at any point."

"Nicky's work tests the limits and definitions of forgiveness," says David Warren, who won an Obie for his New York staging of "Pterodactyls" and is now directing "Captivity."

"There is evil in the world and there is evil within us, and if we can understand that and laugh at it, then we can defuse it. His compassion and hope shine through the muck."

S ilver comes by his particular sympathy for outsiders and los ers honestly, it seems. Like so many of his characters, he has experienced life at the bottom of "the food chain."

"I became aware of that place in junior high," he recalls. "I was zeppelin-like in my physique and homosexual, and this was not a cheerful combination for a youngster growing up in Philadelphia. I wasn't even at the bottom of the food chain. I was looking up at the bottom."

Raised in a Jewish middle-class family in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, young Silver cast envious glances at the "beautiful WASPs" cavorting at the country clubs along the blueblood Main Line.

"I was desperate to be a wealthy, repressed WASP with tennis courts and manservants," he says, and he would later get his revenge by satirizing them in a number of his plays.

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