Playwright Nicky Silver hits Atlanta with two plays: "Food Chain" and "Raised in Captivity"
By Rob Nixon
Enter the world of Nicky Silver and you're likely to find a young man with HIV digging up dinosaur bones in his parents' back yard and having an affair with his sister's fiancé, which of course, causes her to go deaf. Then there's Otto, a hugely overweight man obsessed with a male model who is having an affair with the missing husband of a borderline anorexic. It's a world where mothers return from the dead to nag their children and psychiatrists blind themselves a la Oedipus. But Nicky Silver doesn't find that so outrageous.
"I'm just trying in my humble way to tell stories in an interesting manner" he says. "They don't seem so outrageous to me. That' s probably because when I started out writing plays 15 years ago, they were very outrageous."
To say the least. One of his earliest works, "Fat Men in Skirts", tells of a mother and son stranded on an island who become incestuous cannibals.
"I've mellowed and aged since then; they seem quite a slice of life now", he insists. So one wonders what his life must be like. "My life is dull beyond words. Once I turned 30 everything stopped."
You have to catch him between hilarious rants to get the serious analysis.
"Everyone in my plays with one or two exceptions wants things so desperately it occasionally causes what might be perceived as extreme behaviors" Silver says. "They just need certain things and pursue them at all costs. What makes the plays interesting is that people are pursuing things at cross purposes. I know it sounds like I must be quite loony, but I like them. I'd have lunch with any one of them.
Atlanta had its first taste of Nicky Silver last season with Barking Dog Theatre's production of "Pterodactyls". This month it gets a stronger dose as Horizon presents "The Food Chain" and Actor's Express does "Raised in Captivity". It's a boom time for Nicky Silver. His latest, "Fit to be Tied" just opened in New York, despite such disasters as a broken ankle for Jean Smart (formerly of "Designing Women") and an emergency appendectomy for T. Scott Cunningham (who played Prior in the Alliance Theatre's first staging of "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches") But Silver doesn't feel like an overnight sensation.
"I've skyrocketed to the middle. I've had to sleep with more editors and critics! It's been an exhausting climb. If I were better in bed, I'm sure I would have slept my way to the top", he quips, then shifts gears with lightning speed. "In all seriousness, I've been writing plays for 15 years, 'Pterodactyls', which opened three years ago, did put me on the map in terms of the legitimate press. But I worked for a good 12 years without ever earning a cent. I was producing my plays with friends in a little garage on 11th Avenue in New York City that nobody ever came to. So it doesn't feel overnight at all"
By his account, Silver had an uneventful childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
"People always assume I must have had some very jarring childhood, but the fact is I didn't. What makes someone writer or go into the arts is their uncanny knack of perceiving the slightest problem as the grandest tragedy. Everybody also always asks me, 'Are your parents upset when they see these parents in your plays?' No. But my mother is always shocked at the remarkable way I capture her mother"
Silver did not set out to become a playwright at first, although he always knew he wanted a career in theatre,
"I was in plays in college and one or two outside, but I
didn't think I would ever earn a living in the theatre" he
says explaining his shift to writing. "I looked around and
saw that there were thousands of really talented actors, and I
thought there were maybe five or six really talented writers.
That seemed the way to break in. I thought there were so many
plays and most of them were really very mediocre. I thought if
you can only write a play that's slightly better than mediocre,
you'll have a career. But to be an actor you have to be really
talented and really attractive. I didn't want to diet anymore.
I could've been a designer 'cause I studied art, but I'm afraid
of heights and I suspected that involved some climbing. No ladders".
Silver stifles a yawn. It's eleven o'clock in the morning when I reach him by phone at his Manhattan apartment, the same one he's lived in for 19 years. ("I cleaned it once: it was a bad year. No projects.") This is the earliest he's been up in ages.
"I work until four in the morning"
So he writes at night? "No, I work on my stamp collection. Yes I write!"
I thought maybe he was at the theatre cleaning up. "Yes I mop up after Jean Smart. So this is very early. Then from noon until seven I get dressed. It's a tough process finding just the right accessories to make an outfit really sing. Life is a horrible grind. Why don't you have an accent?" I explain I'm not from Atlanta.
"Is it a pleasant city?" Yes, pleasant would be a word for it. Wait a minute, who's interviewing who? Now he wants to know why in places like Atlanta his work only gets done in "these little 120-seat houses." He wants to know why he's not at "that big one", the Alliance. I tell him they're doing "The Glass Menagerie"
"A lovely piece of work. Laura dies at the end you know". Back on the subject of outrageousness, he launches into a story about another recent interview. "I was interviewed by a 600-pound transvestite last week. I needed an ashtray at one point so I took off my shoe. I wasn't going to grind it out, but I did flick ashes into my shoe and then sort of grind them into my sock. And this transvestite says to me, 'Oh, you're so eccentric.' Things have really taken a turn when a 600-pound transvestite starts calling me eccentric. I said 'You're wearing a brassiere the likes of which if we filled it with punch could serve the entire graduating class of Julliard, and you're calling me eccentric?'"
Back on track, I want to know if he ever gets 'politically correct' flack from - "The people picketing 'Basic Instinct'? I've never noticed. Part of it is that I am myself gay and in the press and make no bones about it. If you're either heterosexual or closeted in your own life, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. But being gay I haven't run across that at all," he says. "Also I think we're living in a time, luckily, when being gay does not a character make. By that I mean 20 years ago you wrote a play about someone being gay, and that's what it was about. And every now and then you have these one-man shows about 'the gay experience' which make my teeth hurt, because you never see plays about the straight experience.
In Silver's work, sexual identity is not necessarily a defining characteristic. He treats his characters' sexuality the way he treats their hair color, he explains. It's never the characters' problem or what they want.
"In general, if the straight characters in the play accept the gay characters' sexuality, the straight audience usually doesn't have a hard time buying into it" he says, explaining how Broadway favorite Phyllis Newman's role as an accepting mom smoothed the way for the blue-haired tourists watching "The Food Chain". Then he's off on another line of inquiry.
"I understand in Atlanta they're doing the happy ending to
"The Food Chain" aren't they? I'm a little disappointed
but I don't care. Let them do what they want. But I hope somebody
does the shocking ending somewhere.
The play, he explains, was produced in Washington with a much darker ending. But his New York producers convinced him they probably wouldn't be able to open with that version. How did they convince him? "Money. Yes I sold out. There were many nights at ten o'clock when I regretted it and many days on the way to the bank when I did not. I came to an ending I also like, but I do miss the grimmer ending, as childish as it is. It's very childish, sort of shock for the sake of shock, and that's what I liked about it. But luckily even the happy ending still conveys the same message.
Speaking of happy endings somehow leads us into a discussion about movies. Silver says he's writing for a film "even as we speak" though the task doesn't seem to give him much pleasure. "I was at a meeting with people from New Line Cinema recently, and I said the theater is where you go to be entertained and enlightened and transported. Movies are something you rent, three for the price of two on Thursdays, to masturbate with the minute you get home"
Nevertheless, he is working on a film version of 'Raised in Captivity'. "I'm thinking of doing it as an animated feature along the lines of 'Its the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown'"
One more question before we close. He wants to know if Etcetera magazine has classifieds in the back, and if so, could I send him one. Does that mean he's been through all the classified in New York? "Are you kidding? My dialing finger is black and blue!" No, Nicky Silver isn't outrageous at all.