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Raised in Captivity

Sebastian's emotional confusion unravels in a series of episodes. His psychologist (Jane Kaczmarek), who feels highly unworthy herself to the point of self-mutilation, feels she can help Sebastian. After more than four years of therapy, he leaves her and writes obsessively to a murderer (Matt McGrath), in jail for life, trying to understand the kind of evil that takes over a person.

Sebastian’s emotional confusion unravels in a series of episodes. His psychologist (Jane Kaczmarek), who feels highly unworthy herself to the point of self-mutilation, feels she can help Sebastian. After more than four years of therapy, he leaves her and writes obsessively to a murderer (Matt McGrath), in jail for life, trying to understand the kind of evil that takes over a person.

Meanwhile, his sister’s husband leaves dentistry to become a portrait painter who uses only white paint so his mistakes won’t show. Even after Bernadette gives birth to a son they can’t quite name, Kip plans to take his family to Africa to start a fresh life in the birthplace of civilization. Bernadette wishes she were an alcoholic — it’d make for a good hobby.

Even though there’s no traditional dramatic spine whisking the audience from inciting incident through climax, director David Warren keeps up a fast pace and milks the absurdity to let humor be the guide. The effect is a kind of hyperkinetic Samuel Beckett. The characters may not have purpose, but they sure are funny.

The seemingly loosely strung incidents with people as neurotic and obsessive as those on “Seinfeld” lead to the characters coming together in act two. Here playwright Silver switches gears to have the characters in close quarters with each other, tensions mounting. While the structure demands patience from an audience, there is reward.

Whitford makes the hapless Sebastian the sanest of the group, even when Sebastian confines himself to the nursery wearing only pajamas, determined to raise an infant in a sinister-free environment.

Hagerty creates a marvelously high-strung Bernadette, both intellectual and simple. “I was a prisoner in my mother’s life,” Bernadette relates, envying her high school friends who had direction and career goals. Having a baby gives her purpose. “I’m a breeder!” she exclaims.

Kaczmarek brings a magnetic, must-watch quality to her performance as the ultra-repentant psychologist who pokes out her eyes and wears rags. She also plays, with force, Sebastian and Bernadette’s mother, who comes back from the dead to explain why she was so cold and who their father was.

Culp as Kip, and McGrath as both a prostitute and the murderer in jail, add to the play’s theme of good people doing bad things.

The lighting design by Donald Holder and the original music and sound design by John Gromada help make the movement from scene-to-scene quick and properly mold moments.

James Youmans’ extremely witty and efficient set design includes a cockeyed door, a curtain of graffiti, and a sense of a world askew. Costume designer Teresa Snider-Stein bolsters the backgrounds of these people: upper-middle-class who carry the angst of their culture.

Raised in Captivity

(South Coast Repertory Theatre, Costa Mesa; 507 seats; $ 38 top) Mainstage South Coast Repertory, David Emmes, producing artistic director and Martin Benson, artistic director, presents a comedy in two acts by Nicky Silver, directed by David Warren. Set d

Production: Sebastian Bliss (Bradley Whitford), a sometime journalist, wishes he could feel something. His mother recently died when her metal shower massager flew off under pressure and hit her in the head, and he has no feelings for her -- nor for his hyper sister, Bernadette (Julie Hagerty), whom he sees at the funeral with her dentist husband, Kip (Steven Culp). Both Sebastian and his sister, in essence, have become who they are thanks to having no father and to having a mother who never showed love.

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