Suffer Club

I may see another show this season that I like as well as Raised in Captivity, but I doubt it. With this production, the folks at Planet Earth Theatre have succeeded in untangling the extravagant imagination of playwright Nicky Silver, and have spun his words into a comedy that's alternately hilarious and horrifying and always entertaining.

As he proved with his off-Broadway smash The Food Chain, Silver's genius is for integrating absurd characters and senseless situations into a coherent piece. Raised in Captivity--like many of Silver's plays--shifts easily between gallows humor and queasy social commentary. In one scene, a blind woman wearing rags trips over furniture while proclaiming her love for a gay man, as her friends sip wine and look on. In another, a dentist who hates teeth whines about the meaninglessness of life to a fellow who's seated in a graveyard, reading Helter Skelter while his mother is being buried 100 yards away.

On paper, Silver's stories look like cut-and-paste collections of unrelated comedy bits. But Raised in Captivity's story bears retelling. It opens in a cemetery, where long-separated twin siblings--Sebastian (D. Scott Withers) and Bernadette (Ginny Harman)--are attending the funeral of their mother, who was killed when her Shower Massage exploded. Bernadette is a high-strung, superneurotic motor mouth who aspires to alcoholism; her meek husband, Kip (Radford J. Mallon), wants to give up his dental practice to become a portrait artist who paints only in white.

Bernadette pleads with Sebastian, who's a writer, to reveal his failures. He announces that he hasn't sold a story in years and is living off his credit cards, and that he hasn't had sex since his lover died of AIDS several years before. He's in love with a man he's never met, a heterosexual death-row inmate with whom he exchanges dark, funny letters. Sebastian attempts a sexual encounter with a prostitute, who slashes his throat and steals his wallet. As he lays dying, Sebastian's dead mother appears to complain about how badly he's messed up his life and to ask him why he ran out on her when he was a teenager.

Bernadette, still angry that Sebastian left her to deal with their abusive mother, invites Sebastian's crazed psychologist, Hillary (Martha Brooks), to live with them. Hillary is obsessed with Sebastian and expresses her guilt with self-mutilation.

This is a comedy. But it's full of lunatic land mines, the kind that usually only resonate with this much power in straight drama. Silver's indictment of violence, child abuse and psychology as a religion may be fueled by comedy, but often as not his sick laughs are followed by painful, emotional scenes.

All of this is pretty difficult to stage, and even harder to watch without the brisk pacing it's afforded here by a team of crack actors and a director who understands Silver's dark humor and best intentions. Director Ben Brittain has mastered Silver's randy rhythmic technique: following several minutes of laugh lines with a viciously violent act or a series of mean-spirited monologues denouncing one social ill after another.

These monologues alone make Raised in Captivity a tough piece to play: Bernadette's long, wearisome diatribes are usually followed by bleak sermons by Sebastian or Kip about why life sucks, or are punctuated by scenes in which Hillary maims herself. But Brittain draws consistently evenhanded performances from his actors, and provides Silver's story with greater contrasts by punching up the drama in several of the more mellow straight scenes.

Brittain must also be handed a palm for guiding young Doug Wasbotten, who plays both the inmate and the hustler, through a pair of really fine performances. The sullen, insidious malice Wasbotten brings to his final scene, in which he reads his latest letter to Sebastian aloud to the audience, is among the most moving interludes I've seen all season.

Brooks also turns in a pair of well-wrought and wide-ranging performances. As Hillary, she's at first tranquil, later berserk; as Mrs. Bliss, she's alternately maternal and monsterish ("Don't raise your voice to me! I may be dead, but I'm still your mother!"). And Mallon manages to make something of Kip, an unformed character who, once he becomes a painter, turns out to have been a more interesting dentist.

Harman, as usual, gives everyone else on stage a run for their money. Bernadette is called on to shift emotional gears in mid-sentence and to push out pages of dialogue with barely a pause for breath; and Harman transforms her from a lunatic whose early lines inspire laughs to a woman with a firmer, more valiant grip on her troubled life than her manic comedy might suggest.

I didn't expect D. Scott Withers, who's usually found clowning onstage, to play drama so effectively. Although he's assigned only one character, he has the showiest role-switching stunts here. Whether contemplating his doomed designs on a condemned man or trading quips with his deceased mother, Withers conveys a sturdy intelligence, and late in the second act he delivers the show's one real knockout punch.

In a theater space as intimate as Planet Earth's, it's easy to tell when a play has grabbed its audience. On opening night, Raised in Captivity evoked a pile of laughs, a thunderstorm of applause and even the occasional sniffle. I imagine that, well into its run, the crowd that comes to see this show is holding its collective breath, waiting for its next opportunity to laugh or cry.

Raised in Captivity continues through Saturday, February 27, at Planet Earth Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela