By Nicky Silver
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
At the Boston Center for the Arts,
Through November 23rd

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

For the opening of Nicky Silver's "The Food Chain" , The Boston Center for the Arts lobby was packed with young people, mostly male, and they kept up a buzz of pleasurable anticipation as they formed themselves into a line and filed in to fill all the seats at the BAC Theatre. Obviously, Paul Daigneault's SpeakEasy Stage Company , in its sixth season of production and with a string of successes topped by "Jeffrey" and "Love! Valour! Compassion!", has established the all-important bond of trust between itself and its audience.

Once through the door and into the theatre, David R. Gammon s' set provided a bit of a shock. It was cold, spare, and ugly. In early days at the Leland Center, Daigneault himself did sets that miraculously transformed the cramped and dingy Leland into a place of warmth and charm, with an aesthete's delight in color and texture. The BCA stage looked like the set of a underbudgeted kids' game show on daytime TV: lumpy poles made of orange Reece's candy wrappers, a wrinkled pallet on a gray floor the texture of industrial waste, and a huge window frame looking out over a bleak nothing. The program announced that scene one of "The Food Chain" takes place in Amanda's living room in New York, late at night, so presumably the set represents part of a loft apartment, and the crude bright confectionery towers made up of empty calories supply a stylistic statement.

Amanda ( Serena Berne ), anorectic and thirtyish, is soon flailing about in this isolating space displaying her physical discomfort and describing her emotional desolation. Amanda claims to be a poet, and further claims that even though as a teenager she was fat and ugly and dateless, she is now -- or was until a week ago-- a beautiful, happily married woman, . But Ford, her husband of two weeks and the one exception to the well-known rule that all men are rats, has disappeared. So she is starving and panicked in her foodless apartment, alone. I laughed at a few of Amanda's one-liners based on the paradoxical demands that society makes on women, but I was uncomfortable. Silver's writing seemed to strand the actress on the border between stand-up comedy and theatre, without the protection of either distanced control or empathic identification. To me, Amanda was repulsive and pitiful, and I longed for another character to enter and put the actress out of her misery. But all around me, people kept laughing.

When Amanda calls up a hot line to talks to --or at-- Bea, a curmudgeonly middle-aged widow who is volunteering as a crisis counselor, Bea barely listens because she is so eager to divulge her own -- worse-- problems, and to dispense bad advice. Here things brightened up a bit. Peg Saurman seems to be making a career of monster mothers, and she does it so well that her shades of inflection and split second timing are pleasures in themselves, quite apart from the specific character and the play. While Bea was doing her "You think that's bad? That's nothing!" routine, I was entertained. Saurman has a compelling personality, and such a need to connect on stage that it looked for a few hopeful minutes as if these characters might relate to each other and be freed from the hellish solipsism of their lives -- but alas, it was not to be. Silver's lines would not permit it.

In the second scene, the loft is a studio, and dominated by that symbol of humanity's perverse estrangement from nature and sensuality, the hideous procrustes bed on which is self-administered the torture euphemistically called "exercise" or "training". A near-naked model named Serge ( Jeffrey W. Mello), obsessively at work maintaining his perfection while awaiting his new lover, is interrupted by a visit from one of his rejected lovers, Otto ( George Saulnier III. Otto is a blimp, strung out on junk food, so heavily into joyless gluttony that he is beyond friendship or fellow-feeling, let alone sexual desire. Serge is polite, Serge tries to be helpful, but Otto is glorying in groveling and grossness. All Otto seems to want from Serge at this point is a bit of horrified fascination: "You get pleasure from my abject misery --and that's why I love you!" he shrieks, as he wolfs down devil dogs. But this isn't true -- Otto is like the masochist in the joke who pleads with the sadist who refuses to beat him. Silver's characters are so narcissistic that they are barely aware of each other's existence. Serge isn't trying to communicate through cruelty, he is merely indifferent. "Is it my fault people are sucked into me like a vacuum?" Serge asks, vacantly. And as Otto threw himself into orgies of mouth-masturbation, shoving in exploding doughnuts, licking eviscerated Oreo cookies and crumbling Sno-Caps, spewing masticated garbage onto the floor and onto Serge and sucking it up again, wallowing in ever more exaggerated postures of raging need and loathsome self-abasement, I felt indifference's cold fingers tighten around my own heart. Not only did I want to get away from these horrible creatures onstage, I wanted nothing more to do with the monsters in human form who were sitting all around me laughing at them.

The third and final scene of "The Food Chain" brings all four of the earlier characters together, along with the elusive and charismatically sexy Ford ( Terrence O'Malley ), who is endowed with comparative dignity simply because he barely moves and doesn't speak. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but as much my sentimental and sex-affirming side wished to assent to it, I couldn't shake off the depressing notion that they'd all be better off dead.

SpeakEasy's director, Paul Daigneault, has a gift for building credible relationships on stage. I've praised him in the past for "making love visible", and felt enlarged and enlightened by the experience, positively brimming over with charity and tolerance. Not this time! But the failure may be mine, and not Silver's or SpeakEasy's. Critical opinion here in Boston has been strictly divided, with young male reviewers raving over the script --"wicked farce" "uproarious" "funniest play of the season" and Saulnier's scenery-chewing performance. Female reviewers were as vehement in their rejection: "will give you a stomachache" "painful" "shallow" and "sophomoric". I found not just the play but the whole experience deeply disturbing. I've smugly assumed that nothing human is alien to me: but now I've learned quite painfully that there is a whole world full of jokes I don't get, and theatres full of people who look just like the people I know and love who inexplicably laugh at them.