Raised in Captivity
nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
January 29, 2009
To describe the characters in Raised in Captivity as "damaged" is a little like calling water "damp." These people take rape, abandonment (physical and especially emotional), murder, knife wounds, self-mutilation, and hysteria as the currency of everyday life. They share an uncanny ability to blink at and turn away from the most grievous happenstance—and most often, they turn inward. No one connects, parents are too self-absorbed to raise their children, sex is barely present...Yes: This is a Nicky Silver play.
Which means it's also, frequently, hilarious. The story here revolves around Sebastian and Bernadette, twins whose mother Miranda recently died when a showerhead came unattached and hit her in the head. Bernadette is married to Kip, a dentist who hates teeth; Sebastian is gay, but only nominally so, since he hasn't had a relationship (or even sex) since his lover Simon died of AIDS some 11 years earlier. After the funeral, Sebastian determines to end his ongoing therapy with Hillary, since after four years he has experienced no noticeable results; Hillary's response is grief-stricken shock, which she takes to extremes, to say the least. Sebastian does have a pen pal in Dylan, a convicted murderer on Death Row, whose case intrigued Sebastian. Dylan is the most self-aware and stable character in the play, which gives the proceedings a certain heft.
Silver's writing is sharp and tangy as always, with dialogue etched in excruciatingly anxious specificity. The parallel monologues for Sebastian and Dylan, each relating a death (Simon's death, and the murder Dylan committed), are simple, gorgeous, and deep. And yet the main parlance of the play is wit, heady bon mots flying fast and furious. Bernadette and Sebastian get most of the juice, with Kip having his share as well. And in their first public performance, Red Fern Theatre Company's cast did rather well in selling Silver's brand of bubbles laced with angst. Josh Lefkowitz, as Sebastian, does admirable work, revealing a character who seems entirely stable—especially in comparison to his sister—but whose life is deeply unsettled and woefully unhappy, and he does it with a deadpan sense of humor that feels exactly right and very distinct. Jennifer Dorr White as both Hillary and Miranda is spot-on with each, especially the therapist's fabulous exclamation "People don't change!" and the mother's harrowing tale of her children's father. José Joaquín Pérez is soulful, sad, and wry as the murderer Dylan, and very different as a hustler Sebastian picks up. Bryant Mason's Kip is funny and effective early in the play, before Kip changes from fearful dentist to liberated artist; post-transformation, Mason feels untethered to the play, and doesn't quite manage to integrate himself into the proceedings. Emilie Elizabeth Miller, as Bernadette, has the lion's share of the play's mordant wit, is required to go from emotional hyperventilation to withering judgment in the blink of an eye, and then must convincingly open her eyes and begin to live, finally, an adult life. Miller has yet to get there, unfortunately; her Bernadette seems grounded from the beginning, not fizzy so much as flat.
Director Dominic D'Andrea has made a strong stylistic choice to place certain of the play's monologues at either of two downstage microphones. The effect is puzzling; rather than feeling like part of the whole, these moments feel (and look) like standup comedy, which robs them of emotional weight. The challenge with Nicky Silver is to balance the humor with the pathos beneath, and the microphones tip the scales toward the former at the expense of the latter. And D'Andrea's staging is spotty, with some moments of simple effectiveness thrown off balance by other scenes in which the actors engage in forced, unfunny physical hijinks that feel out of place on a small stage and dampen the reality of the action. On the credit side, D'Andrea demonstrates a strong sense of pace, which will surely get better and better. Eliza Brown's set is witty and fun, and the clothes by Emily DeAngelis are terrific. The lighting by Jessica Greenberg is just fine given limitations of space and budget. Daniel Kluger's sound design is occasionally heavy-handed, but largely supports the play nicely.
Raised in Captivity asks a lot of questions, offering only scant hope that we can find their answers. As a theatrical exercise, it's fascinating, and Red Fern makes a strong showing with it.