Nicky Silver finds family in the oddest places. In one way or another, his plays, from “Pterodactyls” and “Raised in Captivity” to “The Food Chain,” address the desire for the familial bond, blood-tied or not. In “Fit to Be Tied, ” his latest and perhaps most skillfully crafted comedy, his search leads him to , of all things, Mother. And since Mom is played by the very funny Jean Smart, the quest is well worth the effort.
With his now-trademark use of wickedly funny one-liners to creep up on unexpected moments of poignance a bit heavier on the poignance this time around Silver has fashioned his latest work as a valentine to a mother’s unconditional (though not unflawed) love. If his vision of romantic attachment remains decidedly adolescent, with his characters engaging in much more longing than sex , his embrace of family takes on a new generosity. Working a territory bordered by mean-spiritedness on one side and sentimentality on the other, Silver veers dangerously close to both, and watching him skirt the edges is no small enjoyment.
“Fit to Be Tied” details the knotty relationship between Arloc (T. Scott Cunningham) and his sophisticated lady of a mother Nessa (Smart). As a boy, Arloc inherited a fortune from his father, and his mother, left penniless, jumped into a loveless marriage that now, some 15 years later, has become unendurably lonely. Nessa’s financial dependence on her son only complicates an already delicate relationship, but darker complications await: An envelope containing the results of Arloc’s AIDS test sits unopened on a table in his apartment throughout the play, unnoticed by Nessa but as ominous as Poe’s raven to both Arloc and the audience.
And another complication: The neurotically lonely Arloc has an angel in his closet. Obsessed with a handsome young actor playing one of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas seraphim, Arloc invites the still-costumed Boyd (Matt Keeslar) home, ties him to a chair and begs him to stay. Several weeks and plot twists later, Arloc, Boyd and Nessa have set up a household that’s as unconventional as it is loving and tenuous: Nessa, terrified of being alone in middle age, is falling in love with a too-willing Boyd. “I was 20 years old with all my mistakes ahead of me,” she tells the audience, her guilt compounded by the sudden realization that her son is dying.
Few playwrights could turn such gloom and perversity into an out-and-out comedy, yet Silver does so with his now familiar brand of caustic (though no less jokey) dialogue and smart, knowing references. As Arloc fawns over Boyd’s theatrical performance, the winged actor snaps, “I’m in the Christmas Spectacular, not ‘Perestroika.’ ” (The reference is one of the more overt theatrical homages in the play; a scene lifted from “Prelude to a Kiss” provides a too-convenient, though oddly moving, deus ex Lucas late in the action.)
Each of Silver’s plays seems to have one character who steals the show from the lead (the fat man in “The Food Chain,” the eccentric sister in “Pterodactyls”), and in “Fit” the honor goes to Smart’s Nessa. A drunken, promiscuous woman whose “Absolutely Fabulous” wit is matched only by her insecurity, Nessa is the type of theatrical creation that fuels a play and charms an audience despite generally loathsome behavior. Given most of the play’s abundance of funny lines (indeed, Silver’s barrage of witticisms can be wearying), Smart displays a wonderful verve and comic timing. Her delivery even finds the laugh in the mother’s insistence to her son, “I have been there for you. At times.”
Having directed “Pterodactyls” and “Raised in Captivity,” David Warren is perfectly in tune with the comic-drama rhythms in Silver’s work, and “Fit” provides his biggest challenge yet. Abrupt shifts in tone, though jarring, are essential to the play’s action. Warren skillfully guides his cast through the paces: Smart, in particular, is required to jump from comically selfish egotist to caring mother, sometimes in the span of a line or two. Rest of the cast, including Dick Latessa in the smallest role as Nessa’s heartbroken husband, holds its own.
Silver’s facility for mood-shifting can be confused with glibness. And sometimes there’s no confusion at all it is glib. “Fit to Be Tied” might not win over his harsher critics, but there does seem to be a movement on the playwright’s part toward genuine emotion. The laughs were always there.