Watching the decidedly limp Actor's Theater production of bad-boy New York playwright Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls, I had an odd thought. I wondered what his room had looked like during his not-so-long-ago childhood. I decided it was probably deliberate chaos: casually strewn clothing gleefully planted with surprises to shock his mother or the maid or whoever had to tidy it up. Silver -- also author of Fat Men in Skirts, Free Will and Wanton Lust, and Food Chain, to name three -- lives to shock. His plays are blackly comedic explorations of upper-middle-class domesticity, nightmare versions of Ozzie and Harriet. Audiences reassured by the pristine order of domestic privilege are soon disoriented and disturbed by the raging, screaming voice of the playwright.
"What has this to do with childhood bedrooms?" you might well wonder. Simply this: Starting with the gleaming, well-appointed set (designed by Joseph Gilmartin), the Actor's Theater production (co-directed by Catherine Castellanos and Chris Phillips) seems hellbent on tidying up Silver's most subversive intentions.
Pterodactyls details the demise of the Duncans, a wealthy Main Line Philadelphia family, whose son, Todd (set designer Gilmartin), returns home after many years to announce that he has AIDS. His sister, Emma (Peggy Lopipero), who has always been friendless and isolated, has brought home a fiance, Tommy (Finn Curtin). But Tommy's affections and attention get co-opted by Todd (who becomes his lover) and by Todd and Emma's mother, Grace (Niki Hersh), who hires Tommy to be the family's maid. He cooperates enthusiastically, even to the point of wearing the maid's uniform dress, black with white collar.
Against this zany backdrop, Todd uncovers a dinosaur skeleton in the back yard and begins putting the bones together in the living room. The family dynamics, predictably chaotic, are further complicated when husband Arthur (B. David James) loses his job. The stage is set for extinction, and in scene after scene the playwright revels in the details of how the Duncans unravel.
Silver continually interrupts the realistic flow of action to allow the characters to reflect on their lives and offer their own skewed perspectives. Emma, for instance, is addicted to painkillers because her skin feels too tight. Arthur recalls each of his children's fondness for baseball and seems not to understand that the passion was his own. Tommy wonders if being raised in an orphanage by priests who sexually abused him has anything to do with his inability to have sex with Emma. Grace indulges in alcoholic meditations about how she and Todd are "just alike." And, of course, Todd draws the playwright's heavy-handed comparison between the Duncans and the long-gone dinosaurs.
For the most part the play's dangerous edge has been muted by a curious stylistic mix of realism, in which the actors get to display emotion, and exaggerated overacting, in which they bluster and posture. Rather than use sudden complete blackouts, say, to keep us off balance, the lighting (designed by Rachel Klyce) maintains a sense of uniformity and allows us to keep our orientation and feeling of relative safety. Aside from a gunshot late in the proceedings, the sound design (by Ren Klyce) is muted and comforting.
The single exception to this overall monotony is a remarkable scene in which Grace enters the young Todd's bedroom in the middle of the night, drunk, while a party drones on downstairs. Hersh's extraordinary performance perfectly captures the skewed and reckless behavior of the alcoholic who needs to connect emotionally, along with the attendant impossibility of achieving such a connection. Gilmartin's Todd provides perfect balance as he carefully tries to extricate himself without causing his mother to fly into a rage. It's not a safe scene, nor is it a safe rendering of a scary scene. It's subversive. And surprising. And as shocking as whatever Nicky Silver used to keep in his bedroom.
Pterodactyls runs through June 9 at Actor's Theater, 533 Sutter, S.F.; call 296-9179.