The Caged Birds Sing

Less than ten years ago Nicky Silver was selling clothes at hoity-toity Barney's. Everything changed in 1993 when a New York production of Pterodactyls wowed the critics, turning him into the hottest satirist to scorch the American stage since Christopher Durang. Silver's hysterical commentary on overbearing mothers, guilty sex and postmodern malaise have made him the theatrical voice of an entire generation of urban neurotics. The playwright clearly knows what it feels like to stumble through a crowded city, eaten up by greed, gut lonely for love, pissed off at the world and desperate for a drink to wash it all down.

Raised in Captivity, now making its local premiere at Ashland Street Theatre, pulses with all his familiar familial rage and his own brand of toxic humor, but it is also an oddly hopeful story that ends in the sort of redemption that only a writer of Silver's mettle could make real.

This time around, the suffering son is Sebastian (Byron Norton), a thirtysomething gay with a huge chip on his shoulder that's matched only by the size of his credit card debt. He begins his journey to the light at the Pleasant Meadows Cemetery, where he's come to bury his mother. The poor woman was killed, in typical Silverean fashion, by a broken shower head. Thankfully mother Miranda (Elaine Edstrom) doesn't die in vain. Both Sebastian and his estranged twin sister, Bernadette (Nakisha Guevara), get the wake-up call of their troubled lives, but not before they rip open the nasty sibling rivalry that divided them years ago. Bernadette howls that Sebastian, who left home early for college (a trait he shares with the playwright), was their mother's golden child: "You were the perfect figure in the alcoholic haze of her memory."

She begs him to reveal one "terrible" thing about his seemingly perfect life, which includes an unreadably pretentious article he published in Vanity Fair, so that she won't feel so bad about her own ordinary existence. Turns out that Sebastian is hip-deep in shit. He's celebrating his "11th anniversary of physical and emotional celibacy." He's $45,000 in debt. And worst of all, he has a kooky therapist he can't abide. Racked with grief for a long-dead lover and carrying on an airmail love affair with a convicted murderer, Sebastian has hit the dirty bottom of his failed life.

Delighted with her brother's bad news, Bernadette perks up, giggles good-bye, and the twins go their separate ways. They go back to their broken lives, painfully aware that death waits for no one.

Sebastian's first step toward overhauling his pathetic life is to give his infinitely more pathetic therapist the boot. Outrageously bitter, the blond and whining Dr. Hillary MacMahon (Adrianne Kipp) is not about to let Sebastian fall off her client list without a fight. Once he drops his bombshell of bad news, she begs, rages and finally resorts to "sharing" her deepest, geek-girl-gone-postal secrets, arguing that she loves him and that "boundaries are for countries on a map, not for human beings." Sebastian is lucky to get out of the room alive.

Once he does, however, he resumes his bad habits, the most destructive being his dark obsession with Dylan (Anthony Marble), a pencil-thin, mop-headed convict who bashed the skull of a stranger with a baseball bat. It makes perfect sense in this neurosis-riddled nightmare that Dylan turns out to be the sweetest and most compassionate figure.

Meanwhile, pretty Bernadette lounges unhappily in suburbia with her successful dentist husband, Kip (Joseph E. Hudson), who's had an unsettling epiphany: He doesn't like teeth. Never has. As a result, he wants to chunk his practice and become a painter, a decision that Bernadette, whose wildest dream is to "become an alcoholic," simply doesn't get. Her life, which looked so perfect compared to her brother's, is every bit as broken.

It becomes clear that brother and sister will unite and discover just how alike they really are, but not before some bizarre twists of fate rock their world, one filled with desire, fury and the sort of guilt that drives us to Sophoclean acts of self-destruction.

As brother and sister, Norton and Guevara are energetic and likably disturbed, though both actors are too young for their roles. And the entire Ashland production is plagued by M. Adam Traylor's plodding direction, which sparks but never ignites and blazes into the wild fires of humor that typify Silver's work. Kyle Weidner's set, a stage wall splattered with gray paint and littered with some Salvation Army rejects, is so ratty-looking that it becomes distracting. Black-box minimalism would have been better.

The strongest performances come from the actors in minor roles. Hudson as Bernadette's soft-lipped, bad-artist husband creates a compelling case for his misunderstood misfit of a dentist. Kipp as the nasty Dr. MacMahon, who gives voice to Silver's philosophical musings about "guilt and the breakdown of structures in the culture," jolts across the stage with crazy electricity as she rants about the death of God. Marble as Dylan, the strangely sorrowful murderer, captures the soul of the play. His storytelling is chilling, moving and sometimes drolly funny, which is just the way Silver sees all of us who, in this modern world, have been raised in captivity.

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Lee Williams