SAN DIEGO — "You don't have to hit me over the head with a sledgehammer," says one of the characters in Nicky Silver's "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine."
The line sounds as if it could be a site-specific irony for the play's U.S. premiere--here at the Sledgehammer Theatre.
"Sledgehammer" probably isn't the best image to describe Silver's work; his plays are funnier than that might suggest. However, he isn't one for restraint, either, judging from South Coast Repertory's past productions of his "Pterodactyls" and "Raised in Captivity."
"Marriage," which dates from 1993, is no exception. Its characters live in a sick society, and they say and do outrageous things. Incorrigible quipping in the first part of the play finally evolves into a grim, bitter ending. The weight of this isn't deeply felt--it's a bit late to care for the characters. The relationships of "Pterodactyls" and "Captivity" offered more substance. But the laughs here are real.
No, this isn't a biographical drama about Borgnine's ex-wife Ethel Merman, though it does include a story about her.
"Marriage" instead traces the disintegrating marriage of psychiatrist Simon Pelican (Brian Salmon) and Jill (Diane Addis), a former teacher of blind children who was so impressed by her students that she harbors two wishes for her own children: that they be boys . . . or girls, and that they might be blind. When no children appear, however, Jill turns her attention to Tiffany lamps, which she comes to regard as her offspring.
It's not surprising that Simon himself goes a little crazy. The primary journey in the play is his descent from pompous authority figure to fugitive murderer. He falls for 16-year-old Sean (Michael Douglas Hummel), a surly prisoner who's accused of killing his parents. The two of them run away together, but the honeymoon is quickly over.
Meanwhile, Sean is also the love object of 9-year-old April (Julie Jacobs, an adult actress. Nine-year-olds shouldn't see this play, let alone be in it). She's especially impressed when the runaway couple makes a magazine's list of the year's 25 most intriguing people.
The flat, auditorium-like venue where Sledgehammer operates is a hindrance to anyone who would like to move beyond the play's predominant tone of flip detachment. The stage is severely raked, however, which not only improves sight lines from the rear but also evokes an occasional image of the play's troubled characters having to exert themselves to keep from sliding into complete madness.
The actors (also including Dale Morris in three small roles) are up to the challenges of Silver's snappy comebacks and low-life caricatures, not to mention that perilous stage, and Bryan Bevell's direction keeps the repartee memorable.
"My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine," Sledgehammer Theatre, St. Cecilia's, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 14. $10-$15; Pay-What-You-Can, this Sunday, 7 p.m. (619) 544-1484. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.