Last Monday, at the jubilant opening night party for Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons,” the playwright hid behind a pillar at Sardi’s Restaurant as a publicist read the New York Times’s rave review of the show to the crowd. Fingering an unlit cigarette, he listened as the encomiums poured forth — for the actors, including Linda Lavin, Dick Latessa, Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper, and director Mark Brokaw — but mostly for the one-time enfant terrible of experimental theater who, at 51, had finally made his Broadway debut. During the reading, Silver darted from his hiding place to fire off barbs (“Your childhood elocution lessons obviously did not pay off!”) not unlike those in his acidic plays.
Since the early ‘90s, this modern American absurdist has launched depth charges of subversive laughter in such dark comedies as “Fat Men in Skirts,” about incest, rape and cannibalism, and “Pterodactyls,” a domestic comedy about AIDS and alienation. “The Lyons” is no less toxic or brutally funny, though arguably more polished and moving. The play opens in a hospital room where long-stewing grudges are exchanged within a pathological family: an epithet-spewing father who is on his deathbed and hates his kids (Latessa); a mother from hell (Lavin) who can’t help laying waste to people’s self-esteem; a divorced daughter (Grant) whose A.A. mantras are as shaky as her hands; and a son (Esper), a gay short-story writer whose neck still bears the marks of mom’s apron strings.
Raised in a middle-class Jewish family, the Philadelphia-born Silver claims that his own childhood was not the “Hindenberg” experienced by his characters. But he recalls a story from Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” in which two young girls suffer the loss of ice cream from their respective cones. “One doesn’t care and the other is traumatized,” says the playwright. “I’m the little girl whose ice cream cone made her scarred for life.” Silver spoke with ARTINFO about other ways in which his life and career has been both a trauma and a privilege.
How did you feel when the Times hailed you as progeny of Neil Simon and Edward Albee?
In a word, embarrassed. These are iconic playwrights. But without making any claims to equality, my aesthetic makes it clear that it’s not an altogether inappropriate arena. Clearly I like a joke, but there’s also a strain in me that is very dark, forbidding, and disturbing. There’s a lot of Borscht Belt in me and a lot of psychological misery. Was that self-deprecating enough?
Early in your career, a critic once famously wrote, “Silver never met a pain he couldn’t laugh at.” True?
I think I can find something funny in the worst of it. I’ve been in a room with parents of dying children and while I hope I have a sensitivity developed enough so that I don’t sit there making jokes in the depths of despair, I also know when a joke is called for and when it will help.
Do you believe that marriage is as vicious as it’s presented in “The Lyons”?
I don’t feel that way about marriage as a rule. I do think theater has to come from conflict and conflict comes from misery. It’s not part of my worldview that family is doomed and that marriage is doomed — wait, maybe I shouldn’t say that. It’s certainly not part of my worldview that marriage is doomed. It just makes more interesting theater.
Then you think family is doomed?
Hmm. I don’t think — last night people kept asking me, what do I want people to take away from the play? And I was flummoxed, so I kept saying, “My phone number, which is scrawled on the wall of the mezzanine bathroom.” But I think the play is saying when family fails, then you take your connection to other human beings where you can find it and don’t question it, whether it’s a surly nurse, a man dying of lymphoma, or a gigolo. I don’t think all families fail, but it’s hard and we have to be open to finding peace wherever we can.
When connection is elusive, as it is for Curtis, the son, does fantasy then become a substitute?
Hold on, my imaginary boyfriend just asked me something. [Pretends to talk to someone.] I’m back! I’m reluctant to talk about this because the actor who is playing him might read this. But what I will say is there is a certain point when internalized self-loathing becomes so burdensome that I suspect that his character believes the only connection that he is worthy of is one that’s illusionary. “Illusionary”? Is that a word? Did I just make that up? Illusory? Illusionary? Whatever. I don’t think it’s about control with Curtis. It’s finding some way to overcome the grandiosity of his own self-loathing.
The parents appear to likewise be deluded about each other.
Rita says to him, “All you ever did was love someone who you thought I was.” We often create people out of whole cloth or sometimes from the raw materials of real people, but created in such a way that isn’t who they actually are. That’s a theme that runs through a lot of my work. In “The Food Chain,” there’s a line: “I’ve spent my whole life looking for someone who will love me for who I am on the inside so that I can love them for the way they look.” We’re all looking for someone who can embrace our authentic self more than we can embrace our authentic self, to the point that we won’t show our authentic self even while we’re looking for someone to embrace it. Could you follow that?
How exaggerated are these characters?
I think they’re condensed, not exaggerated.
You don’t feel you need to shock the audience, to wake them up?
Early in my career I tried to shock them with subject matter, but now I think it’s more a matter of stylistic shifts to keep them on their toes. For instance, in “Fat Men in Skirts,” the first act was non-linear, the second act was a farce, and the third act was a courtroom drama. In [“The Lyons”], there are subtle shifts in the first act and then big ones in the second. I know that makes some people uncomfortable and they reject it. But I like it.
As trapped as these characters are in their rampant narcissism and loneliness, do you feel hopeful they can escape it?
I absolutely feel there is hope for all of them. The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is not the presence of tears versus jokes. In my mind, in a comedy the characters get what they need; in a tragedy they are denied what they need. The tone is almost immaterial because you can have a very funny tragedy and a very sad comedy. At the beginning of my career, I got rejection letter after rejection letter saying, “There’s no one to like in your plays, no one to root for.” And I loved and rooted for all of them. Whether or not they seem nice in the conventional sense, they’re fighting very hard for some crumb of gratification, of happiness, of affirmation that seems really elusive. And that for me is as admirable a quality that one can have. It’s a fearful thing to do and shows a lot of courage. Oh, God, I sound so pompous.
You’re a scrapper yourself, hanging in through the years of rejection and mixed critical reviews.
You can’t control your career, but you can control your work and I’ve been lucky to have had this long relationship with the Vineyard [Theatre], which has developed my plays off-Broadway over the years. Broadway was never a goal. When I arrived here in the mid-‘70s, I had the superiority of someone who had accomplished nothing. I thought of Broadway as very bourgeois and lowbrow except for Stephen Sondheim and Joe Papp and the Public Theater. It was just a snotty outlook. Since then, the effort to make plays feels like it’s been unending battle. It was not unpleasant, but never easy. It’s been an uphill battle. Now, I sound whiny. I’ve gone from pompous to whiny.
But you’ve fought …
Tooth and fucking nail!