Face to Face : Nicky Silver Answers - "The Maiden's Prayer"

By Simi Horwitz

Award-winning playwright Nicky Silver has an extraordinary comic persona. There's the look: the curly black hair coupled with his shabbily chic garments; the pursed lips as he ponders. And most central, those amazing black eyes darting back and forth behind thick, rimmed, black glasses. And let's not overlook his delivery--short and sudden--or the actual content of what he's saying.

On why he won't act: "I'd have to share a dressing room. I have a neurotic fear of nudity. Not in other people. But in my plays and my own person. I love nudity. In 'Love! Valour! Compassion!' there wasn't nearly enough for me. But I haven't been naked in front of anyone for 20 years!" A little shiver of horror.

We meet with the 37-year-old Philadelphia native in the lobby of Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre where his newest play--no nudity--"The Maiden's Prayer," opened Feb. 22. It's a serious work, and to that extent a departure from Silver's other pieces that are both dark and farcical, evoking John Guare overtones. Silver's plays include "Raised in Captivity" (Drama-logue Award); "Pterodactyls" (Oppenheimer Award, Kesseling Award) and his best known, "The Food Chain," which enjoyed a successful commercial run at New York's West Side Arts Theatre.

" 'The Maiden's Prayer' is more reality based," says Silver. Still, the Silver stamp is evident, stylistically--actors engaging the audience in direct address, dialogue made up of brisk phrases spoken in rapid fire--and thematically; there's that razor thin-almost-negligible line Silver draws between comedy and tragedy. "The difference between being funny and tragic is half a note in voice pitch, a millisecond of timing, a lighting cue."

"The Maiden's Prayer" describes the inter-relationships of five troubled individuals--siblings, life-long friends, new friends, ex-lovers, husband, and wife--all of whom are in search of love.

"What interested me here was the way characters shift from scene to scene: Who is perceived as right and who is perceived as wrong changes and the audiences' allegiances shift, too," says Silver. "But I was especially interested in exploring the difference between needing and loving someone. And I wanted to explore the idea that if someone has a great sustaining passion, whether or not it's returned, he's lucky." He pauses. "I'm not sure I believe it, but I tried to examine that idea. We're all forced to contend with building lives despite the fact that our passions are not reciprocated."

Silver notes that "The Maiden's Prayer" represents for him "a new beginning. This is the first play I've written where the characters are not multi-generational. There are no parents in this play. I no longer feel that I'm the inheritor of the culture. I am the culture. I don't mean me, Nicky Silver, but me as a member of this generation.

"What were the greatest challenges in writing this?" Wild laughter. "Pagination. Getting the computer to line up. I don't think in terms of challenges because I don't think in terms of product. But I suppose the most difficult--exciting, I prefer the word exciting--scene to write was Taylor telling Paul he doesn't want to live. That's very different from saying, 'I want to die.' That requires a motor. Taylor has no motor. Most of my characters function from a place of extreme need. Taylor's need to destroy himself is an expression of passivity."

Ups and Downs

The son of a banker, Silver says his main goals growing up were to be "thin and Gentile," eyes darting. "I briefly achieved thin in college. I never achieved Gentile." He adds seriously, "I knew I wanted a career in theatre, but I had no idea doing what."

Silver went on to earn his B.F.A. in theatre from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. And he began writing in college, "mostly cabaret pieces for friends," before trying his hand at a full-length play, "Bridal Hunt."

"It was mean, shallow and jokey. But I gave it to the receptionist at the Phoenix Theatre--she was someone I knew personally--for her response." As it turned out, she was so impressed she passed it on to the head of script development at the company. He loved it and the play received a successful reading. "The Phoenix closed, but I got an agent."

Some bad times followed. "AIDS came into my life, I lost someone very close, and I went into a clinical depression. I worked in a restaurant and then a store up to 80 hours a week." His career as a playwright was re-launched almost serendipitously several years later. "I was walking down the street when someone came up to me and said, 'Didn't you write "Bridal Hunt"?' He had seen the reading and remembered it. He was running a small theatre company and said he needed a play with three men, three women, and a bare stage. He offered me $600 for a play. And I wrote a $600 play. All the characters had short names like Ip. I didn't want to type long names. The play was not good. But he got his money's worth." Silver administers a series of abrupt little taps to the table top to punctuate the point.

The play was mounted by the Vortex Theatre Company at the Sanford Meisner Theatre; and for the next five years, whenever the space was available, Silver was allowed to use it for his new and developing pieces. There was no money involved. Indeed, Silver and friends paid for everything and did all the work--including building sets, hanging lights, and renting rehearsal space. "My first real break came when the artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. happened to walk in and saw, 'Fat Man in Skirts.' He liked it and produced it at the Woolly Mammoth in 1986, where it was a great success." He notes, "Luck comes eventually if you wait long enough. No, I don't really believe that. It may or may not come. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be earning my living at this. For 13 years, I made no money as a writer."

The turning point for Silver was "Pterodactyls," a critically acclaimed production mounted at the Vineyard Theatre. His first commercial play, as noted, was "The Food Chain." "You don't sit down to write a commercial play, but of course, the market place affects your esthetic, subliminally if not intentionally. I'd love to sell out. You bet your sweet petut! Right now I do movie rewrites, but I've never sold a screenplay. Make me an offer, I'll throw in the microwave."

Still, he's doing well as a playwright, here and abroad. "I'm wildly popular in Norway. The toast of the fjords. I don't understand. I don't question. And I'm extremely grateful. My work is also very popular in Germany. There, I suspect it's guilt. I'm far more popular with them than their unpleasant productions are with me. The Germans have a strong tradition of avant garde that seems to me unnecessary, the idea that every play needs a startling point of view." And more disturbing from Silver's viewpoint. "They also like nudity. A lot. There's been nudity in every single play of mine that's been done in Germany. They're just wild for nudity. All those naked people flapping around." He shudders. "I'd rather be going through customs."