IFThe Silver Era

By Brent Stansell, Dramaturg

When The Lyons appeared on Broadway in 2012, the play was Nicky Silver’s first Broadway production after more than twenty years being produced Off-Broadway; hard to believe considering Silver’s unique contribution to the tradition of black comedy and farce in the American theatre. Hard to believe that at one time there was no such thing as a “Nicky Silver” play.

Structurally, his plays seem like realistic conventional comedies before twisting and turning—often abruptly—doling out surprisingly morbid—and often violent— punishments and rewards. His precise—and often vulgar—language alternates between revealing monologue and quick-fire dialogue, playing out the farce through what one critic called “the ferocity of its characters’ needs.”

Substantively, a “Nicky Silver” play is known for its traditional characters: a gay male protagonist, a sister who is high strung, a narcissistic mother with children fighting for her attention. Silver has mined his perspective as an outcast to flesh out his flawed characters, saying that while growing up with his “zeppelin-like” frame, Jewishness in a world of WASPs, and undoubtedly gay persona, “[he] wasn’t even at the bottom of the food chain… [he] was looking up at the bottom.”

Although at first glance The Lyons seems to be the classic dysfunctional family comedy, the play is typical Silver. After writing a play Silver considered to be complicated and idealistic, he just wanted to write something simple, going “back to basics… putting a family in a room and having them talk to each other.” What results is arguably his sharpest critique, yet also his most forgiving play about a family to date.

From producing his own plays at the Vortex in New York while supporting himself with a job at Barney’s, to his early days finding success with productions at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in DC, to his years being produced Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, take a look at the era that is the career of Nicky Silver.

Selected Play History:

1989 Fat Men in Skirts (Vortex Theatre)
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| “I remember getting a rejection letter from The Public Theater. They told me none of the characters were likable enough. I didn’t understand, because I liked all those characters. I don’t think what makes us identify with a character is being likable. It’s whether they are fighting for their survival. I think most of us identify with that in some degree or another.”—Nicky Silver, speaking about one of his earliest plays
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| “All work is autobiographical to some extent, but people assume that if you set a play in Philadelphia and you’re from there that you must be writing about yourself. They asked me that even about Fat Men in Skirts, in which a child and his mother are marooned on a desert island for five years and become incestuous cannibals. I always answer, ‘Of course. I did rape my mother and then eat my father and his mistress, and now I’m out on a work-furlough program.’”—Nicky Silver
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1991 Fat Men in Skirts (Woolly Mammoth) (directed by Howard Shalwitz)
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1993 Pterodactyls (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “For Silver’s world is one in which no one is safe from devouring mouths; in which desire leads to ecstasy, despair or death, or more usually, all of them; in which taboos are made to be violated; and in which a tyrannosaurus skeleton towers over a living room to remind its inhabitants that human beings are an all-too perishable species of carnivore.”—scholar David Savran
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1993 Free Will and Wanton Lust (Woolly Mammoth) (directed by Nicky Silver)
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| “A play may start out as a comedy of manners and become a farce and then a black comedy, then a tragedy. [Free Will and Wanton Lust] should be approached as a conflict of theatrical styles.”—Nicky Silver
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1994 The Food Chain (Woolly Mammoth)
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1995 The Food Chain (Westside Theatre)
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1995 Raised in Captivity (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “Nicky writes scenes in which four characters are on four separate tracks; it’s like honking horns at an intersection.”—David Warren, director of Raised Captivity
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| “There’s no such thing as casual in a Nicky Silver play. The stakes are so high you can’t think about it; you just have to enter and—wheeee!”—Patricia Clarkson, who played Bernadette in Raised in Captivity
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1996 Fit to be Tied (Playwrights Horizons)
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1998 The Maiden’s Prayer (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “I tend to write plays wherein the characters feel isolated, separate from the world and alone.”—Nicky Silver
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1999 The Eros Trilogy (consisting of Claire, Philip, and Roger and Miriam) (Vineyard Theatre)
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2000 The Altruists (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “[Playwriting] is a safe place to vent your spleen, under the guise of literature, and take revenge on those who harmed you.”—Nicky Silver
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2004 Beautiful Child (Vineyard Theatre)
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2006 The Agony and the Agony (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “I feel like all of my writing from the beginning has been a mix of very disparate aesthetics to see how they coexist. Because, in my life, they actually do co-exist, much more happily than they seem to in most plays.”—Nicky Silver
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2008 Three Changes (Playwrights Horizons)
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| “I certainly think loss is one of the most vast of common denominators, and that theatre is a way of staging those feelings of loss.”—Nicky Silver
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2011 The Lyons (Vineyard Theatre)
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| “I’m very different from the person I was when I wrote plays like Fat Men in Skirts. I’m much less angry than I was at that stage in my life. I’ve certainly grown in some ways…You grow, you age, you get tired. It’s exhausting being angry. I think I’ve come to value human beings more than I did.”—Nicky Silver
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2012 The Lyons (Broadway)
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| “I didn’t name them the Lyons by chance, I’ll say that. I think that they are a combative group, which is not to say that they don’t love each other very much. For whatever reason, each of them has been isolated in some way and is fighting pretty ruthlessly to find some kind of completion, some kind of connection that they don’t have naturally.”—Nicky Silver

Gibson, Melissa James - photo credit Heather WestonWhat is This?

By Brent Stansell, Dramaturg

“Everyone has a This. It’s changing at all times, but the This is the elephant in the room. It’s the scary thing that demands attention but doesn’t necessarily receive it.” — Melissa James Gibson

This is not the most marketable title. The word “This” is distinctly specific yet simultaneously utterly ambiguous. At first thought This does not provide a clear window into the subject of Melissa James Gibson’s richly complicated, deep, and probing play about a group of friends facing middle age, grief, and mortality. Theatre critics have pointed out how this “bum” or “slightly annoying” title fails to illuminate the play’s themes on the surface. However, the play’s title aptly captures the underlying paradox at the play’s core: “This” is the exact thing that Gibson’s characters are unable to define.

Melissa James Gibson has established herself as a formidable playwright adept at exploring the intricacies of language. Her productions of [sic] and Suitcase off-Broadway at SoHo Rep in 2001 and 2004 respectively solidified her as a playwright capable of dizzying wordplay with the likes of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. With the premiere of This at Playwrights Horizons in 2009, Gibson established herself as a playwright capable of the emotional underpinnings and keen perceptiveness of Anton Chekhov. Even Gibson has acknowledged that, like Chekhov, not many critics have celebrated her plots; instead, her dramatic power resides in using language to capture her character’s nuances and emotional resonance. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times accurately characterized Gibson’s gift when he wrote that her “richly patterned wordplay and undercurrent of rue combine to cast a moving spell that lingers in the memory.”

In all of her work, Gibson sees language as the tool through which to explore “the cusp between hilarity and tragedy, that fine line where single moments can contain extreme emotions, coupled with the whole process of communication and how difficult it is to be received in the ways in which we intend.” For Gibson, This is intrinsically linked to pain and loss. Although she started writing This wanting to explore adultery, after losing four friends to cancer in the eight months prior to the play’s premiere, she found out she was really grappling with mortality. Just like Chekhov, Gibson writes characters facing incredible pain as they go about their daily lives, but characters who choose to face their pain with humor, intelligence, and humanity. She’s interested in capturing “those jam-packed moments” that “are the stuff of drama — layers of comedy and tragedy and lightness and weight, depending upon one’s perspective in any given moment” because, she says, “life demands that we navigate this complexity with every breath.”

In This, Gibson provides us with characters extremely adept at using language, but who nevertheless struggle to define their messy and complicated lives. This poet, songwriter, mnemonist, bilingual Frenchman, and surprisingly expressive woodworker are capable of playing endless language games and compulsively analyzing everything from Britas to Bjorns to Socrates to Hebrew, but seem to fail at understanding and analyzing their own desires and choices. As all of the characters navigate life approaching forty, they each face in their own ways the big, unanswerable questions Gibson says we all must deal with: “Does who I am remotely resemble who I thought I’d be? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What sort of person am I in the world? What do I contribute? What will they say about me when I’m gone and should that influence the way I conduct my life?”

The play’s characters endlessly debate the superficialities of language, but are ultimately incapable of answering these questions and defining “This,” what Gibson has called “the scary thing that demands attention but doesn’t necessarily receive it.” Although the play’s title is seemingly inexact, it perfectly illuminates the penetrating, enigmatic questions at the heart of the play.

*All quotes attributed to Melissa James Gibson are excerpted from an interview with the playwright conducted by Tim Sanford, Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, or by Kristin Friedrich, a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer, written for Center Theatre Group.