By Nicky Silver
Directed by David Warren
Starring Jean Smart
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street / (212) 270-4200 (1-8)

Reviewed by David Spencer

Critics, like any other members of the regular theatregoing public, develop "relationships" with playwrights--or perhaps more accurately, with their work. The difference is regular patrons get to generalize: "I love her work", "he always leaves me cold", etc. etc. There's no "always" for a critic, though, not a fair-minded one. You have to be totally open to the possibility that someone whose work you despise--even someone who you dislike on a personal level (happens, on occasion)--will touch you unexpectedly; that someone you regard as an icon will disappoint you profoundly.

My relationship with the work of playwright Nicky Silver has always struck me as tricky, considering the esteem in which he is generally held. I've always found his comedies to be extremely talented--also bleak, misanthropic and, to a degree, mean-spirited. I think I've always had sound, pragmatic reasons to back up my assessment of his craftsmanship--which also struck me as spotty--but after three plays that left me cold, I wasn't sure if it would be fair for me to review his newest, "Fit to Be Tied" at Playwrights Horizons. However legitimately I regarded my point of view, I began to sense that there was a consistent difference of sensibility between him and me, one that might never be resolved, and I nearly farmed out the review to an associate.

Boy, am I glad I didn't.

Because this time, Mr. Silver hit the nail on the head. This time he broke through--not only through my own wall of resistance, but just possibly through to the mainstream in a way that I don't think even his off-Broadway hit "The Food Chain" managed to do.

And the hell of it is: I don't think I can tell you why. Or, rather, I can...but I don't think I should.

For one of the enormous pleasures of the play is discovering it. There will be many reviews, most of them undoubtedly positive, and since this play is not a mystery or a thriller, they'll freely discuss plot points in detail. And I urge you not to read them. "Fit to Be Tied" may not exactly be a thriller, but it lays itself out suspensefully, it proceeds like a page turner, and its quirks of plot are as unpredictable--and as satisfying--as any Elmore Leonard crime novel. And I can, I suppose, allude to the fact that a criminal act is the event that changes everybody in the play. While the play goes through its own mutation.

At the top, its hero, Arloc (T. Scott Cunningham), a fussy, uptight young man who also narrates, seems to be telling us his story in a desperate bid for absolution. "I didn't plan for any of this to happen!" he says. Not telling us what "this" is, right away.

He does explain to us that he's very well-to-do. His late father left him a considerable estate, while his very-much-alive mother, Nessa (Jean Smart), more friend than parent, was left nothing. This afforded them both a bit of minor celebrity, as the case went to the courts and Nessa contested the will. And lost. Now Arloc sends her a regular allowance, as she suffocates in a loveless second marriage to an older man, Carl (Dick Latessa). A marriage that Arloc begs her to leave, promising "I'll take care of you," if she does. And of course she is bursting to. To borrow a line from another playwright, Herb Gardner, her philosophy of life lies "just to the left of whoopie," and the whoopie hasn't been allowed to breathe for 15 years.

Not long after, Arloc, as conservative with his emotions as his mother is profligate, attends the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall and finds himself obsessed with a beautiful young man who plays the Angel of the Lord. He invites the young man, Boyd (Matt Keeslar) to his apartment. Arloc is nervous, shy, awkward. Boyd is bemused and curious--also a little naïve. "May I kiss you?" Arloc asks, and Boyd gives his consent. Then Arloc asks if he might do something else. Blurts it out, really, it's so unlike him, but he asks, and Boyd, hesitantly, uncertainly, says okay...

And that's where I stop summarizing. I will only say that once the play turns down this path, it threatens to be many disturbing things, all consistent with Mr. Silver's previous oevre: it threatens to be dark, to be kinky, to be distasteful, to turn on its characters unpleasantly--

--but what you never see coming is that it will turn, instead, into one of the freshest, funniest, most charming, indeed most touching romantic comedies of the decade. Maybe ever, but I specify the 90s because its configuration of characters, its specific issues and its candor with them, could not have existed in any previous era. And among the bigger surprises is--who the romance is truly between. And perhaps even saying that reveals too much.

The play has been directed by David Warren (a regular collaborator with Mr. Silver) with an expert light comedy touch, on a lovely living-room set by James Youmans. As for the cast...I'm firmly convinced that "Fit to Be Tied" will stick around beyond its limited run, and settle in somewhere for an open-ended engagement, long enough for replacements to take over in time...but there's something about the energy of this original cast that I think is not to be missed. They may be equaled at some point in the future...but I doubt they'll be bettered. And special mention must be made of Jean Smart as Nessa. Eradicate everything you know of her teevee persona, if you know her from teevee at all: this is an edgy, manic, needy side of her you've never seen. Her performance is so sharp, so perfectly nuanced, so impeccably timed--and, on top of all its technical accomplishments, so above all human, when caricature (in less skilled hands) would be but a hair's breadth away--that it may well herald a major career shift. (Not that she hasn't achieved her well-earned fame; but this is the kind of eye-opening performance that can, if promoted correctly, turn a teevee star into an all-media star, and a very hot one at that. I'm not being hyperbolic. The performance is that striking.)

From one play, it's impossible to know if "my relationship" with Nicky Silver will change. But for the moment, at least, I'm looking forward to his next. Because here Mr. Silver has, for me, gotten it together in a way that he hasn't before. Here he's achieved a maturity of style and purpose. Here has it all--all his signature "anarchy" of narrative, all his perverse perspective, all his issues with families and their chronic dysfunction--but here the dark exists side-by-side with the light, and it's a tightrope walk, humanism on either end, despair and bleakness on either side, waiting to claim everything should the walker to lose his balance. But--this time--Mr. Silver never missteps. He makes it all the way to the far platform...

...and just in time for Christmas...

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