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Mining Silver

Houston gets another peek into a celebrated playwright's imagination

Nicky Silver blew onto the theatrical scene in the mid-'90s with his hysterically strange plays about the heart-crushing loneliness of our modern times. His oeuvre -- at once darkly philosophical and laugh-out-loud funny -- examines everything from dysfunctional families to death to gay love. And his quirky stories have often found an audience right here in Houston; many of his works, including The Food Chain and Pterodactyls, have been performed here. Raised in Captivity, produced by Unhinged Productions at Stages Repertory Theatre, offers Houstonians yet another peek into the playwright's peculiar imagination.

We first meet Sebastian (John R. Johnston) at his mother's funeral. Stone-cold and unable to cry, Sebastian wants most of all to go home, where he can be left alone. But his twin sister, Bernadette (Stephanie Wittels), won't let him go. She's the mirror opposite of her brother. He stays silent as she wails and shouts out her narcissistic regrets and worries, which include never loving her mother as she should have and lots of talk about her weight, her clothes and her dentist husband, who's never been to a funeral before. Most of all, Bernadette wants to get a rise out of her brother. She wants to feel something from Sebastian, but he won't admit to any emotional life. When he finally does spit out the bitter truth -- that he's deep in debt and hasn't had an emotional or sexual attachment to anyone since his lover died of AIDS -- Bernadette is filled with satisfaction. Such is the humor of Nicky Silver.

The funeral, it turns out, becomes an emotional land mine for everyone involved. It blows open all sorts of wounds and desires the family has kept under wraps for a long time. The scenes that follow offer a long, sometimes funny lament about getting past grief and guilt and finding something that bears at least a resemblance to love.

Bernadette (Stephanie Wittels) feels satisfied knowing 
that her twin (John R. Johnston) has no money and no 
lover.
Bernadette (Stephanie Wittels) feels satisfied knowing that her twin (John R. Johnston) has no money and no lover.

Sebastian, Bernadette and Kip (Scott Banks), Bernadette's husband, all must go through a crisis of sorts. Kip discovers how much he hates dentistry at the funeral. "There's no poetry in teeth," he cries. Instead, he decides to become a painter. He uses only white paint, however, because he doesn't want to mess up.

Bernadette, who is perfectly happy playing the role of vacuous wife to a dull dentist, is completely undone by her husband's about-face. Though money is not an issue since her mother's death, Bernadette still can't get over Kip's desire to become bohemian. All Bernadette wants to do is shop and think about clothes and the stuff of contemporary life. When she discovers that she's pregnant, her frustration with her husband only deepens.

Sebastian's problems are of a slightly more bizarre ilk. He becomes obsessed with a prisoner pen pal (McGregor Wright) whose crime was beyond violent. He also decides to quit seeing his psychotherapist (Laura Chapman) because he's not getting any better; she goes ballistic on him and starts acting increasingly bizarre herself.

Some of Silver's best writing comes when these strange characters speak all at once, in a sort of glorious montage of need, desire and pain. Their regrets and sorrows overlap into a great verbal sea of human misery that's both funny and horrifying all at once.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced cast in the Unhinged production sometimes undercuts the humor and the very real emotional tension in Silver's odd play. The performances tend to lack nuance, and the timing often obstructs the humor. Especially difficult to take is Chapman's psychologist, who shouts every sentence as a grand and carefully enunciated declaration. Both Wittels and Johnston bring intelligence to the twins at the center of the story, but the performers could use more guidance from director Randy Symank. The subtler emotional colors of the script get lost in these performances. Johnston's Sebastian is too cold and angry to let us feel much compassion for him, and Wittels's Bernadette is too composed to make us believe that she's the hysterical one of the twins. Still, by the end, both actors gather strength and passion and manage to navigate their way toward a surprisingly effective last scene.

Even though technically the show clearly is put together on a shoestring budget, Stefan Stout's putty-colored minimalist set is elegant, and the incidental music is sorrowful and evocative. But despite its strengths, this production does not give us Nicky Silver at his best.

 
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