The good news about Nicky Silver's Raised in Captivity is that actual social issues are raised. The bad news is that, apart from a few good lines and an impressive opening scene, Silver doesn't seem to know what to do with those issues--or how to create characters who make us care. Energy and intelligence have obviously gone into this production at the Avenue Theatre, but an excellent director and a talented cast can't compensate for mediocre writing.
The story concerns a set of twins, a sister and brother raised together but long separated. As the story opens, they're attending the funeral of their mother. Bernadette, the personification of nervous tension, introduces her obedient husband, Kip (who seems to have escaped from a sardonic Christopher Durang play), to her icy brother, Sebastian.
Sebastian oozes calm and keeps an emotional distance from his neurotic sister, who longs to hear all about the miseries of her brother's life. She urges him to come for a visit, but he refuses. She rages at him for leaving home and leaving her to put up with their mother's cruelty. He tells her he doesn't want mom's money, though he's terribly in debt. Kip, meanwhile, just hates being in the graveyard--the graves look like rotting teeth, and he hates teeth. He's a dentist.
Sebastian is a writer, a character too complex for any of his gay love interests to figure out. He has fallen in love with a convicted murderer who's straight and serving a life sentence, and the two outcasts, each filled with self-loathing, find something meaningful in the long-distance relationship. The obsession grows worse; Sebastian loses his apartment and ends up living with his sister and Kip, who has dropped dentistry and taken up painting--badly. Worried about her brother, Bernadette next invites his crazed psychologist--a woman as riddled with guilt as a medieval flagellant--to live with them.
These characters aren't quite extreme enough to be absurdist figures, though they have moments of neo-absurdist goofiness. Neither are they human enough to touch anything like authentic feeling. Despite all an actress of Denise Perry's caliber can bring to the role, the psychologist remains a two-dimensional moron with a guilty conscience. Silver's point--that psychology has become a kind of backward religion--is certainly inspired. But the part is so badly written, the character such a pastiche of other characters from better plays, that the message gets lost.
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Cody Alexander, always accomplished, makes a valiant effort to infuse Bernadette with something like a complex psyche; she's a woman who's high-strung and vulnerable and finds her only joy in motherhood. But Bernadette's long diatribes grow redundant and wearying. Gregory Brent Johnson brings an otherworldly abstraction to the role of Sebastian, projecting an emotional intensity that works well initially because it's kept carefully in check under a thin layer of ice. Yet Sebastian's is finally a crank role. His need for love is touching at first; but his obsession with a murderer and the murderer's own recollection of his horrific deed is just grotesque. And playwright Silver simply doesn't know what to do with Kip. Stacy Carson gets to be cute in his horror of gaping mouths, but when Kip gives it all up to become a painter, we realize he was a more interesting dentist than he is an artist.
Silver seems to be making a commentary on the tendency of people to follow their own dreams, regardless of the damage it does to others. All the self-involvement and isolation this play holds may be an attempt to come to terms with the twentieth-century plague of meaninglessness and emotional distress. Silver indicts TV, child abuse, rape, violence and psychology--even America's idealization of individualism. But he doesn't know how to reach his viewer's conscience. He tries to make a pathetic love story in the midst of emotional chaos, the tone of which is out of sync with the rest of the piece.
Only at the very end of the play does some kind of light break through--a reconciliation as each of the relationships gets sorted out and a new family eases up out of the ashes. By then, though, it's been dark for far too long.
Raised in Captivity, through September 7 at the Avenue Theatre, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.