Playwrights adore dysfunctional families. What writer wouldn't be fond of wildly eccentric individuals who can't easily distance themselves from each other? Take, for example, a wealthy 40ish wife and mother, who's playing tonsil hockey with a young stud half her age while her pregnant, lesbian-wannabe 15-year-old daughter is in the room. This is how the family strife begins in the mordant farce Free Will and Wanton Lust, now being produced by Convergence-Continuum at the Liminis. But due to massive failures of imagination and tonal consistency (mostly in the script, but also, to a lesser degree, in the performance), a wild ride bumps to a complete and tedious stop by the middle of the second act.
Playwright Nicky Silver is bursting with ideas in this piece and, for a while, his comical takes are quite exhilarating. We quickly learn that mom Claire possesses less than an eyedropper's worth of maternal compassion as she makes out in front of her daughter Amy, whose name Claire is hard-pressed to remember. The dialogue in the early scenes is a knowing parody of Noel Coward-like drawing room patter. (Young lover Tony to Claire: "Your tongue tastes divine." Claire: "I've had a mint.") And Lauri Hammer as Claire conveys the perfect balance of polished self-regard and upper-crust cluelessness; hurt over Amy's criticism of her shallow nature, Claire protests, "But my indifference was sincere!"
Just as we're getting used to this trio, Amy's strangely reticent brother, Phillip, returns from London with his fiancée, Vivian, in tow; she's a bug-eyed, uptight woman who's enthralled by the life of the mind and her nonphysical relationship with Phillip ("Ideas are the true aphrodisiac"). Soon, however, Vivian encounters boy-toy Tony -- they had once known each other back in art school -- and her intellectual fixations vanish, as they do the bone-dance behind the divan.
Up to this point, Silver seems on track in developing a daffy comedy around some seriously screwed-up but fascinating characters. But once the second act begins, it seems as if we've been forcibly shunted into a different play entirely. First Claire launches into a long monologue constructed around her dislike of people who spit in public, with aimless digressions into her nearly comatose mother's illness ("I dressed her like she was a marionette"), her father's death, and her gradual realization that, ta da!, "sex is important when it comes to seeing the beauty of things." That tiny nugget of wisdom is unfortunately wrapped in a soggy pastiche of juvenile, self-consciously clever writing that continually draws attention to itself. Several times, Claire says something out of context and then explains it with the aside, "I'm using sarcasm to make a point." It's funny once, but then it just becomes irritating, as does Claire's observation about the deft construction of her speech, as she eventually returns to her arcane theme of spitting: "See, I've come back full circle!"
After a steamy, wordless, and rather pointless sex dance between Tony and Vivian, Phillip takes the stage to present a slide show on his views of sex, girls, and men. Thus ensues another interminable monologue larded with more of playwright Silver's "Ain't I cute!" commentaries on his own writing. After Phillip explains how he thinks sex organs are ugly and how a girl "did things to me" in a bathroom at a teenage party, he finally reveals his crush on another man. Worse than the groaner of this anticlimax is Silver's switch from edgy farce to pseudo-serious melodrama. This problem only intensifies in the following scene, a screamingly overwrought confrontation between Claire and her son over Tony and Vivian's libido-driven disappearance. Finally, the collapse of a once-promising theatrical evening is given a roundhouse coup de grace with a feckless character twist right before the final curtain.
The always intriguing Convergence-Continuum group does what it can with Silver's badly tarnished effort. Allyson Rosen has magnetic presence as the repressed and then erotically reborn Vivian, and Geoffrey Hoffman is engaging as the randy, preening Tony. But Lisa Bradley's Amy doesn't expand beyond a predictable pouty-whiny stereotype, and Steve Needham isn't able to surmount his stage stiffness to provide a sense of who Phillip really is -- which makes the long discourse on his sexual history an exercise in irrelevance.
Director Clyde Simon can often squeeze every ounce of humor and meaning from a juicy script, but he's got his hands wrapped around a dried turnip this time. In attempting to comment on the trenchant subjects of physical bonding, solitude, and identity, playwright Silver ultimately became more enamored of his own wordsmithing than of the story at hand. And that's a recipe for wanton mediocrity.
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