Raised in Captivity
by Nicky Silver
We meet Sebastian Bliss and his twin sister, Bernadette Dixon, at their mother's funeral, after she was killed by an errant shower head. It is a reunion for the siblings, having not seen each other in years. After the funeral Bernadette can barely stop weeping, while her brother is merely irritated by what he feels is her humiliating display of emotion. We follow Sebastian to a therapy session with Dr. Hillary MacMahon, an extravagantly needy woman, who, upon hearing that Sebastian is terminating his treatment, dissolves into a morass of self-recrimination, ending with her stabbing her hand. All the while, Bernadette's husband, Kip, responds to the funeral rather mystically, deciding to eschew his dental practice and become an artist. Bernadette, now pregnant, is reduced to being Kip's model—immobile on the outside, raging on the inside. Sebastian's only real contact with people is in the form of letters he writes to a convicted murderer, Dylan. Attempting to form another human relationship, Sebastian brings home a prostitute and ends up with his throat cut. As he lies bleeding, he is visited by his mother's ghost. Mother and son reveal secrets they couldn't tell while Mother lived: Her children are the progeny of a rapist; and Sebastian had, indeed, loved. Sebastian goes to his sister's home to recuperate and while there becomes obsessed with Dylan. As Bernadette and Kip prepare to leave for Africa with their new baby, Sebastian finally receives a letter from Dylan. In it he explains that his punishment has not alleviated his guilt, but that charity might, and thus he sets Sebastian free from his obsession. The lesson is learned again as Bernadette sets her husband free to pursue life with Sebastian's doctor, Hillary MacMahon, who had visited Sebastian at his sister's. As the play ends, Sebastian, who has decided to stay and be the baby's father, finally weeps for his lost lover, his mother and everyone he misses.
Directed by David Warren; sets by James Youmans; costumes by Teresa Snider-Stein; lighting by Donald Holder; original music and sound by John Gromada; production manager, Mark Lorenzen; production stage manager, Christopher de Camillis. Presented by the Vineyard Theater, Douglas Aibel, artistic director; Barbara Zinn Krieger, executive director; Jon Nakagawa, managing director.
Cast: Peter Frechette (Sebastian Bliss), Patricia Clarkson (Bernadette Dixon), Brian Kerwin (Kip Dixon), Leslie Ayvazian (Hillary MacMahon and Miranda Bliss) and Anthony Rapp (Dylan Taylor Sinclair and Roger).
March 1, 1995
RAISED IN CAPTIVITY; Alienation, AIDS and Murder, But Keeping a Sense of Humor
By BEN BRANTLEY
When the audience at the Vineyard Theater files out for intermission after the first act of Nicky Silver's "Raised in Captivity," it is with a stunned silence seldom associated with comedies of manners. And that is, improbably enough, what this extraordinary new play is.
What the audience has just seen is two men, framed by isolating spotlights, describing two very different deaths. One of them has watched his lover die of AIDS; the other talks about committing a murder. As the two monologues build, in an exquisite counterpoint of simple, almost clinical language, it is as if a pane of glass has descended for both men, cutting them off from any emotional engagement with the world beyond. For those watching the play, however, the response is anything but detached.
The roads to alienation, as modern literature can testify, are many and varied. But they have seldom been mapped out with the fearless combination of comic artifice and heart-wrenching empathy that Mr. Silver brings to them. "Raised in Captivity" is about guilt, redemption and self-punishment, and against all odds, it is also very funny.
The play's characters respond to life's blows and disappointments in ways ranging from stormy confusion to emotional anesthesia. But all of these people have to some degree misplaced their feelings. This is a work, after all, in which a mother can tell her son, "I loved you enough to feel nothing."
Such paradox is at the very core of this brave comedy. Mr. Silver and the director, David Warren (who staged Mr. Silver's "Pterodactyls" last season), have created a theatrical world as mannered and self-contained as that of Oscar Wilde. But it goes way beyond the reflexive, knowing irony common to hip American comedy today. There is an anguished heart beneath all that artifice. And the tension between form and content ingeniously reflects the tension in the lives portrayed on stage.
Much of what is shown here has been portrayed many times before: estranged siblings; the fashionable urge to blame everything on parents; a world in which all formal systems, from religion to psychoanalysis, have been tested and found wanting. Indeed, Mr. Silver, whose previous works featured incest and cannibalism on a desert island and the arrival of an ice age in suburban Philadelphia, is tilling much more prosaic ground.
But as Mae West, an expert on inflection, used to sing, "It's not what I say, but the way that I say it." And Mr. Silver, who showed his literary influences a little too clearly in his earlier efforts, now knows just how to say what he has to say. There are elements in "Raised in Captivity" that recall John Guare, Spalding Gray and particularly Christopher Durang. But the total effect is of a strong, wonderfully idiosyncratic voice that has come firmly into its own.
The play begins in a graveyard, where Sebastian Bliss (Peter Frechette), his twin sister, Bernadette Dixon (Patricia Clarkson), and her husband, Kip (Brian Kerwin), have gathered to mourn the death of the twins' mother, Miranda, who was killed by an unhinged massage attachment while taking a shower. ("Odd," remarks Sebastian, with deadpan drollness, "as I knew her to be a person who primarily took baths.")
As Sebastian, a 30-ish writer who has lived in a state of "sexual and emotional celibacy" in the 11 years since the death of his lover, later remarks, "I have no contact with anyone, including myself."
Correspondingly, the opening scene unfolds as a wittily composed fugue of atrophied connections: between brother and sister, between husband and wife, between Sebastian and his feelings for his mother, between Kip, who is a dentist, and his profession. "I hate teeth," he announces, in one of the play's many inspired non sequiturs.
The characters introduced in subsequent scenes are similarly incomplete. Sebastian's psychiatrist, Hillary (Leslie Ayvazian), a garrulous, self-dramatizing woman who has understandably lost all her other patients, has also lost faith in her work and spectacularly announces, "Oh, people can't change!"
Dylan (Anthony Rapp), the convicted murderer with whom Sebastian has initiated a correspondence in an attempt to define his own guilt, is unable to understand the crime he committed. And the ghost of Miranda (also played by Ms. Ayvazian) shows up to explain the harrowing circumstances that led her to divorce herself from her maternal instincts.
Linking all the characters, who also include a street hustler (Mr. Rapp) whom Sebastian picks up, is a self-lacerating desire for redemption that would somehow afford them the chance to start over. The ways in which this desire is given theatrical life range from the ordinary (the pregnant Bernadette fantasizes about becoming an alcoholic) to the absurdly grotesque (the psychiatrist takes a horrific cue from Greek tragedy). The complications lead to a strange but harmonious rematching of couples that bizarrely evokes the end of a Shakespearean comedy.
Mr. Silver has encased all this in a metaphor about imprisonment that in lesser hands would seem very heavy indeed. So would the sort of signpost statements with which the work is sprinkled. ("In this country, in this culture, children turn on their parents," one character says.)
But for the most part, the author's style is confident enough to accommodate and transform the obvious. His dialogue, which skillfully juxtaposes the banal and the outlandishly whimsical, has the shimmer of an opal. And it has been paced with the surest rhythms of any playwright since David Mamet.
Individual phrases linger hauntingly in the memory. They are as quirky as the description of a man falling over into "a wet broken-pencil heap" and as simple as Miranda seeking refuge in "a tiny wooden apartment with an iron bed." And the monologues, which include a searing recollection of a childhood birthday party gone demoniacally wrong, are remarkable for both the beauty of their language and their revelatory blending of theme and character.
"Raised in Captivity" has the sort of script that requires flawless timing. A single hole in the delivery and the whole thing could collapse like a souffle. Mr. Silver is extremely fortunate in his director, Mr. Warren, who orchestrates dialogue into a symphonic medley of voices and has had his performers shape their bodies into sharp cartoonish angles.
Everything about the production, in fact, seems gratifyingly of a piece. The uniformly excellent actors, who find a way of giving stylized, metaphoric life to heartfelt sentiments; the off-center combination of expressionism and realism of James Youmans's enchanting sets; Donald Holder's lushly romantic lighting: all of these elements match exactly the perverse lyricism of Mr. Silver's writing.
Archly absurdist comedies come cheap these days. Finding one with depth of feeling is truly a cause to celebrate.