There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“Tell me something awful about your life,” pleads competitively neurotic Bernadette Bliss on encountering her shy twin brother, Sebastian, at the outset of Raised in Captivity. Woolly Mammoth fans will recognize the setup. The question sounds Noel Cowardish but masks real malice. It will be answered with desperate truth that somehow sounds funny. We’re in Nicky Silver territory the moment Sebastian obliges with an over-the-top horror story of loneliness and frustration.
Naturally, his sister is overjoyed, and the moment earns an easy, casual laugh. But the exchange turns out to be more telling than it initially appears. For by the end of this particular darkly hilarious Silverian odysseyinvolving shrinks who blind themselves with screwdrivers, teeth-hating dentists, and alarmingly self-aware death-row convictsthe author will have led his audience to the conclusion that embracing catastrophe is precisely what gives life meaning. Along the way, seemingly as an afterthought but with consummate skill, he will also morph those laughs into tears.
As the title suggests, the play’s characters are all in cages of one sort or another. Bernadette (Naomi Jacobson) is trapped in a loveless marriage. Her dentist-husband, Kip (Mitchell Hébert), is constricted by his job. Sebastian (Steven Dawn) escaped his family at an early age, only to isolate himself behind walls of debt and emotional withdrawal. His only friends are a death-row pen pal named Dylan (Christopher Borg) who’s literally behind bars, and a therapist (Nancy Robinette) so paralyzed by guilt that she might as well be. Even the production design gets into the act, with Robin Stapley’s sliding, metal-mesh panels caging the characters as surely as their neuroses do.
What reunites Bernadette and Sebastian after years of self-imposed exile is their mother’s funeral (she was killed by an errant showerhead), and what keeps them together is shared desperation. Both are searching for purpose and direction; neither is getting much assistance from helpmates. Bernadette’s husband is of no use at all, so consumed is he with giving up dentistry for art. While his wife panics, he paints, restricting his palette to white, and turning every canvas he touches into the painterly equivalent of a blazing smile.
Sebastian’s shrink, meanwhile, is too consumed with punishing herself for what she imagines are her sins (“I live, I breathe, I come into rooms and leave them”) to pay much attention to his problems. She thinks she loves Sebastian, and though she disavows Freud picks an appropriately Oedipal punishment for this breach of professional ethics, putting out her eyes and wandering the world in rags. Dylan, meanwhile, soliloquizes from his prison cell about violation and death.
Sounds hilarious, no?
Well, against all odds, it mostly is. In Fat Men in Skirts, The Food Chain, and Free Will and Wanton Lust, Silver’s characters often proved adept at turning self-deprecation into an art form. In this outing, they outdo themselves, spewing giddily disparaging one-liners about everything from core beliefs (“Freud is the pope in modern dress”) to core essences (“I am inertia given human form”). Robinette handles the former line with her trademark addled certitude. Dawn gives the latter such a winsomely self-deflating spin that it sounds almost as if he’s bragging.
Jacobson and Hébert, perfectly matched in spousal obliviousness, are equally fine, turning their artist-and-model sequences into farce of a very high order. And Borg, restricted mostly to responding in epistolary form to Sebastian’s queries (“Are you gay?”…”Not yet”) lives up to his supposed rep as the wittiest guy on his cellblock. Howard Shalwitz’s fast, ferocious staging obviously contributes to the hilarity, but no one writes absurdist humor with the verve Silver brings to the task. When he’s scattershot, he’s amusing. When he’s focused, he’s brilliant.
Still, the best moments in Raised in Captivity aren’t comic. They’re heartbreaking. Take the exquisitely intertwined, almost operatic twin soliloquies at the tail end of the first act. Dylan stands upstage, recounting how he killed a man during a robbery, while Sebastian sits quietly, recalling in counterpoint the last labored breath of his AIDS-stricken lover, Simon (not “Phil,” as reported in the Post, but then the Post also misattributed a key line of dialogue, so it must’ve been distracted). Both mortality tales are as brutal as their phrasing is lush, and their juxtaposition makes for an eerie blend of head-bashing savagery and the subtler but no less cataclysmic violence of a final, aspirated sigh. The actors are harrowing, the staging superb. The author has never given audiences anything quite like this passage. Nor like the rending, absolution-providing embrace with which he concludes the play.
Which is not to say the show doesn’t have dry spots. The second act takes much longer than it should to get where it’s going. And sometimes Silver’s twinned conceits get so complicatedregarding motherhood, for instance, we’re introduced (posthumously) to the mom who died by plumbing, and (postnatally) to Bernadette’s nameless babythat patrons will be forgiven for concluding that the show has wandered even further from the beaten path than its creators intended. But when the twisted journey turns revelatory, as it sometimes does in a production that in its best moments is as redemptive as the script, it’s all worthwhile.
The Latin rock band Eclipse and some sharp young actors are the draw in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s staging of I Never Said I Was a Good Girl (Nunca Dije Que Era una Niña Buena), an uneven morality tale about urban youth gangs. Penned by Venezuelan playwright Gustavo Ott, who was 28 when it premiered in Caracas, the evening doesn’t so much take a teenage point of view as play as if it were written by a teenager.
Trixi (Deena Rubinson), a 15-year-old fashion victim with wildly overstated hair, begins the evening by pulling out an outfit-matching chrome revolver (it glints off the studs on her brassiere) and plugging a trenchcoated passer-by. He is evidently notch 31 on her belt, which puts her a couple of notches ahead of a rival gang’s leader.
Alas, while bragging about the killing to the rock star-wannabes and pre-adolescents she hangs out with, Trixi discovers that the press has mistakenly credited her rival with the murder, thereby undermining the killing-for-celebrity gambit (shades of Chicago) that keeps her going. The gang’s jungle-gym playground (nicely designed by Tony Cisek with a nod to Keith Haring in the wall graffiti) then becomes a spot for reminiscing as Trixi’s pals listen to her tales of previous glory. The killing of a pharmacy clerk who wouldn’t give her aspirin (“well, I had a headache”) seems to be a fave.
Though the others share not just Trixi’s predilection for violence, but also her inability to articulate frustrations in words of more than two syllables, they also spin tales. One particularly inexpressive kid named Bubú (Walter Mastreppa in speed-freak mode) decides he wants to be a filmmaker and, appropriately, conjures up a scenario in which his hero gets his tongue cut out. A buddy named Leoncio (Rafael Pereyra) does pull-ups on the jungle gym to work out his frustrations nonverbally. A romantic lout (played appealingly by Mattias Kraemer) tries to express affection for Trixi, and ends up retreating in embarrassment after blurting incoherent fragments of poetry he’s read somewhere.
Trixi, meanwhile, taunted by an older girl with an even more unlikely coiffure, hatches an ultimately tragic plan to recapture her lead in the killing contest. These two young women are the author’s idea of evidence that feminine youthful alienation can be as frightening as the testosterone-powered variety, but his argument would be more persuasive if he hadn’t written them into a really dumb plot.
Director Abel Lopez’s decision to spice things up with Eclipse’s driving rhythms is a smart one, though the director can’t really be said to have integrated the group into the proceedings. For the most part, the action just stops dead so the band can play songs about young love and death that it has written for the production. The action also stops dead when the author wants to make a point, which he does at laborious length in the final scene.
Still, Salvadoran Roberto Constantiny’s clear, buoyant vocals and the band’s crisp power chords are solid assets, and the deliberately frenetic acting reflects the exuberance of youth (as does, for once, the spirited simultaneous English translation provided on headsets). Now, if only these folks could find a more interesting outlet for their talents.CP