One Screwy Family

Nicky Silver's Free Will and Wanton Lust is one black comedy. And Unhinged Productions' masterful rendition of the work, which won the 1990 Helen Hayes Award for best new play, does it justice in all its dysfunctional glory.

As the show starts, Claire (Cheryl Tanner), the matriarch of the family from hell, has taken into her bed yet another young stud, Tony (Steven Scott), a painter who's as ambitious as Claire is horny. She claims to have found the fountain of youth in promiscuity and adultery. "Your semen is my youth serum," she cries out during sex from behind the couch, in view of her daughter Amy (Elizabeth Bannor). Dressed like a goth prostitute, adolescent Amy proceeds to down the contents of every decanter on the bar. Desperate to get Mom's attention -- or anyone's, really -- she throws tantrums, announces she's pregnant and even confesses she might be a lesbian. Mom isn't listening; in fact, she can't even remember her daughter's name. "My indifference was sincere," Claire confesses later about her child-rearing skills.

In Silver's skewed universe, moms are monsters, and fathers are nonexistent. Dad is due to arrive tomorrow, but that doesn't stop Claire from bingeing on Tony. There's an unexpected arrival in prodigal son Phillip (Joshua Gray), who's been living in England. The change of locale hasn't done him any favors: Eyes red and sunken and hair disheveled, the slight Phillip is the walking dead. "I've never been this relaxed," he screams out. Amy offhandedly comments that he looks rather ghastly, continuing to slug Scotch straight from the bottle. Phillip announces he's met a girl. Claire is overjoyed. "At long last, I'll have a daughter," she crows.

Vivian (Sara Gaston) demurely walks in wearing a swirl of saffron robes, her hair in a kooky topknot. She's a Hare Krishna acolyte who spouts platitudes about spiritual enlightenment and ideas being the true aphrodisiacs. Needless to say, the family will have none of Vivian's psychic mumbo jumbo, but the amoral beast in Tony is aroused by her. By the end of Act I, Tony and Vivian wind up behind the sofa, then out flies Vivian's sensible underwear. "I won't be a cliché," she yells as passion overtakes her and her feet shoot up in the air.

Act II changes tone radically: The black farce gives way to two outstanding monologues from Claire and Phillip. It's here that Silver shines like gold. Like a diva's great opera-ending aria -- say, Brunnhilde's "Immolation" or Daphne's "Transfiguration" -- both of these complete playlets are an actor's dream. Glorious in their poetry, they're the meat of the play. Silver effortlessly opens up the characters' hearts to break ours, and accomplished actors Tanner and Gray give heart-stopping, searing performances, commanding Theater LaB Houston's intimate space.

Staring into her vanity mirror, Claire reflects on her life. This arch, overly insensitive mother is numb to her children and everyone else. She embodies free will and wanton lust, albeit in the baroque veneer of a Noel Coward heroine. Tanner plays the part perfectly, posing on the divan in her chic Chinese silk outfit, crossing her long legs to reveal her come-hither garters. To escape her own decomposing world, Claire takes a series of young lovers to her bed. "The river flowed, and I became a girl" is one of the flowery descriptions Tanner luxuriates in. Soon her orgasmic memories have her stretching out on the couch. A sultry combination of Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, she fleshes out the role with aloof heat.

In his lengthy monologue, Phillip relates his short, miserable life. He immerses us in his personal demons, couched in sex, which he needs as much as Claire does. "Is the vagina such an oil painting?" he asks us, detailing the nitty-gritty of his journey toward love. That's all he wants, all any character in a Silver play wants: love. But when Phillip finds it, he destroys it. His convoluted monologue, full of twisty emotions and razor-sharp outbursts, is a desperate plea for acceptance. Alternately funny and creepy, Gray nails this difficult role. "Don't judge me," he wails after confiding in us. Judge him? Hell -- we're applauding.

Not for everyone, Nicky Silver's acid-bathed comedies and dramas (Fat Men in Skirts, Pterodactyls, The Food Chain, Raised in Captivity) have a liberating effect: Afterward, your own family will look positively Cleaver-esque. Filled with incendiary situations, his work swirls with dysfunction. And yet it's set to paroxysms of radiant language so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that you want to weep. First, though, you've got to laugh out loud at the flailing characters' grotesque pratfalls. Achingly sad and achingly funny, Unhinged Productions' show, directed with stiletto accuracy by Chris Jimmerson, is subversive, grand and immensely moving.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover