HENRIK. Now there's a name for a playwright. Bertolt. Thornton. Tennessee. Neil.
As Nicky Silver peeled the wrapper off the straw he was about to plunge into a Diet Coke, he contemplated the question: "What's your born name?"
"My born name?" Flicker of a smile. "Edward Albee." Another flicker. "He'll be thrilled . . . I don't tell my born name. Well, Silver is real."
Leafing through all the raves about "The Food Chain," the dark-sided Off-Broadway comedy at the Westside Theatre that at this writing is the hottest ticket in town, you, in fact, find Nicky Silver, who wrote it, linked by one critic or another to Neil Simon, Henrik Ibsen, Noel Coward, Frederick Lonsdale, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Greenberg, Harry Kondoleon, Christopher Durang, John Guare, Spalding Gray, Thornton Wilder, E.M. Forster, Joe Orton and oh yes, Edward Albee. How's all that feel?, Silver was asked.
"Depends on who the playwright is," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm very flattered about Joe Orton"--the nearest of artistic kin among all the aforementioned--"because he's a genius. You know," said the 34-year-old Silver, "they're still referring to me as a young playwright. Let's propagate that myth."
"The Food Chain" is a three-scene, no-intermission play inhabited by five people at total cross-purposes.
Amanda (the extraordinary actress Hope Davis) is a willowy, scatterbrained young woman who writes poems with titles like "Untitled 103" and is newly, madly married to Ford (Rudolf Martin), a taciturn scriptwriter who has walked out on her immediately after a super-orgiastic honeymoon. Needs some time to work, he says. Amanda pours out her troubles and her wifty-wafty life story to a suicide-hotline lady in a very long and colorful monologue. It includes a ferocious denunciation of whoever it was that invented women's purses.
Bea (Phyllis Newman) is the suicide-hotline telephone lady who, chewing gum and working away at her needlepoint, lends a Jewish-mama ear and mouthful of advice to the frantic caller, starting with: "Amanda, loneliness is my oxygen. I breathe loneliness. I'm Bea, and you don't know what loneliness is until you've walked a mile in my shoes."
The recently widowed Bea, a rabid movie fan, did not love the husband who disgusted her for 30 years -- a union from which sprang a son she doesn't even want to talk about. Amanda's occupation as poet baffles Bea. "Does no one in your social circle have a job?" the older woman says. "You have a shorty nightgown? Put it on. Everything looks 100 percent better from inside a shorty nightgown."
Serge (Patrick Fabian) is a male model who just can't help being so damned good-looking. In truth he's good-looking enough for runway, not for print. Serge is waiting at home in bed for his most recently acquired lover to show up, when there's a tremendous hammering on the door, and in bursts Otto (Tom McGowan), a huge balloon of a man -- or obsessive nebbish misfit -- who is himself wildly in love with Serge, has a dreaded mother somewhere out there and never stops stuffing his face with Cheez Doodles, Yodels, Oreos, Dunkin' Donuts, bagels, and Cheetos from first moment to last, washing it all down with a couple of Yoo-Hoos drained in one gulp.
It is playwright Silver's art, or craft, to knit all these misconnections into various startling connections amidst many a laugh. What also seeps between the lines is, in Bea's phrase, the oxygen of loneliness.
When "The Food Chain" had its first exposure last year at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., the director was playwright Silver. Director of the New York production is Robert Falls, a pretty hot property himself, having come to this show off an Obie Award for his staging of Eric Bogosian's "subUrbia" at Lincoln Center; a Tony nomination for direction of "The Rose Tattoo," starring Mercedes Ruehl at Circle In Tèe Square; and--as the three of us were sitting there, upstairs at the Westside, on a September afternoon--just about to start rehearsals on another barrel of laughs, Strindberg's "The Father" for the Roundabout. Bob Falls's home base is the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where he's been artistic director since 1986.
Falls peeled the wrapper off his straw. He is a large, shaggy, casually bearded, amiable man, 6-foot-5 and of ample girth--not quite an Otto, but, in his jeans and T-shirt, large enough. "Oh, I understand Otto," he said. "I mean, who doesn't understand Otto? I've been obsessed with people, the same way Otto is, and some people have been obsessed with me, strange as it may seem." One of these might just be his wife of two years, Kathleen Moynihan, the Senator's niece. "I don't eat Oreos," Falls said, "but the Diet Coke is killing me. That's what I live on, bubbles and sweetness."
On a hot day playwright Silver had arrived for the occasion in a dark jacket, mismatched black vest, arrantly mismatched khaki pants. He, too, can be very amiable, covering it over with wicked one-liners. When a chap in the box office indicated stairs left while saying: "To the right," Silver without missing a beat murmured: "You're like the Straw Man." In fact, in that getup, with his herky-jerky body language, Silver himself somewhat resembled a blend of Straw Man and Tin Woodsman.
"We've never done an interview together," he said to Falls. "This is what it's like, baby."
"No, as a matter of fact, we haven't," said the director. "It doesn't get any better than this."
Somebody murmured a mild expletive.
"There's a lady in the room," said Silver, peering owlishly through his eyeglasses. "That'll be me."
Well, yes, there was a time when Nicky Silver was a fame-hungering luminary of the Way-Off-Broadway gay set, author of a string of imperishable works like "Fat Men in Skirts," "Wanking 'tards," "Free Will" and "Wanton Lust," "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine." But then came journalistic sanctification for Pterodactyls and, the following season, for "Raised in Captivity," and now here we are where gayness is only one thread of the ludicrous and considerably larger weave of "The Food Chain".
Falls, as it happens, had never seen a Nicky Silver play until he caught that Woolly Mammoth production in Washington. "I'd read them all and rejected them for the Goodman. Liked them; just didn't think they were right for that audience. But I was a fan. When I saw "The Food Chain", I thought it truly hilarious, said I'd do anything to do this play."
"Every other director in America had passed," said Silver, straight-faced. Two beats. "I made that up . . . Soooo, I went to "subUrbia" -- and was awestruck by the courage of that production. I called my agent, George Lane--generally referred to as the teddy bear of the entertainment industry--and said: 'Get that man.' "
As it further happens, George Lane is also Bob Falls's agent.
"The Food Chain" was originally slated to be done in New York last fall, before "The Rose Tattoo." "But we couldn't find a theatre," said Falls. "There was a glut of theatres."
Silver looked at Falls with dawning joy. "A dearth of theatres," he said. "Dearth, not glut."
"Thank you," said Falls, with a small bow. "A dearth of theatres, a glut of plays."
Another mutual coincidence was actress Hope Davis. She had starred here in Silver's Pterodactyls and for Falls in Chicago in "The Iceman Cometh."
"Worked for me as a child," Falls said.
"Before she dried out," said Silver.
"Before she became your muse," said Falls. More than one commentator in the press has referred to Ms. Davis as Mr. Silver's muse.
"Hope Davis and Mercedes Ruehl--ever seen them in the same room?" said Silver. "They're the same person."
"Amazing transformation," said Falls.
"Hope was in my mind for "The Food Chain" from the beginning," said Silver, not kidding, "but she auditioned like everybody else. The fact is, if you want to do plays for free, in your garage, you can make a lot of compromises. But when you want to get serious and make money, you have to take a number of pains."
"See," said Falls, perhaps to take the edge off the foregoing, "there's this difference: Mercedes Ruehl asked me to direct her in 'Rose Tattoo'."
"If I asked you to direct me in 'The Rose Tattoo' . . . ?" said Silver absently--which led quite logically to the next question: Had playwright Silver ever wanted to be actor Silver?
Before it could be answered, Falls said to Silver: "I think I once saw you nude onstage."
"I was once nude onstage," Silver said. "Totally nude, in 'Total Eclipse,' by Christopher Hampton, before he became a big deal, at La MaMa, in 1977. I was 17, 130 pounds, and the audience was exactly 9 feet away from where I was standing if you catch my drift. The second night, I said: 'I don't know who's sicker, me or the people in the front row.' "
"I was naked in [Brecht's] 'Galileo' at the Goodman," said Falls. It was one of the productions he directed there, which has long since become legend. "Brian Dennehy was Galileo, and I got naked in a cage with 11 bodies in a scene where he wanders out on the street in the midst of the plague." Did it to break Dennehy up? "Yes, and it did."
Nicky Silver, who will be 35 on Dec. 3--"Gifts should be sent to the Westside Theatre"--is from Wynnewood, outside Philadelphia. How many Jews in that town, he was asked. "Four--but by weight, 50 percent." His own weight has seesawed up and down all his life. "When I came to New York at 16 to go to NYU, I was well over 200 pounds. The first year, I lost about 90 pounds. By now I've put a lot back on. I'm porcine"--a favorite word--"but very muscular under a girdle of lard." To Falls: " 'Girdle,' how d'ya like that?" To everybody: "I was 17, on a sofa at Studio '54, no, not like Truman Capote, Truman was cute, I was not as thin as Truman." Silence. "On a sofa," said Silver. "Get it? Anybody get it? On a sofa." Oh, said the interviewer, I get it. "Well, give the man a cigar," said our playwright.
Robert Falls, who will be 41 next March, is from Ashland, Illinois, pop. 900, near Springfield. "My father's a Republican," Falls said, "so it was Everett Dirksen over at our house all the time. That old hambone. I was always going as a kid to political rallies. Very dramatic." Falls crossed his arms and looked Silver in the eye. "I ran away and joined a circus at 13," Falls said, "and lost my virginity in a cornfield."
"You're a geek!" Silver exclaimed. "You bite the heads off chickens."
How's the virginity right now, Nicky?
"This minute?" said the author of "The Food Chain", whose mother, about whom he has many mixed feelings, was once in real life the supervisor of a suicide hotline -- "this minute it's complete, desperate, lonely solitude. The saddest story in America today. As Judy could have told you," Silver said drah-matically, "the admiration of millions doesn't add up to a plugged nickel when you go home at night to an empty bed. I pray every day to meet somebody who will love me for what's inside, and" -- the punch line -- "who I can love for the way they look."
But Nicky, that's the play, isn't it? That's "The Food Chain".
"Yes, that's the play," said the playwright.
-- By Jerry Tallmer