Playwright Nicky Silver is American, but he moved to England last June.
“There were lots of reasons,” he says over the phone. “I had always wanted to live in London, and I used to come to here every year for my vacation.”
He adds, with pointed understatement, “I would certainly add that the politics in America were not my favorite.”
“But also,” he continues, “I had lived in New York for so many years, and I thought ‘you can just stay in New York and look at the same thing out of your window for the next 30 years, or you can try to make your life a bit more interesting. So that’s what I did.”
“And I had enough miles to fly first class,” he quips in conclusion, “so I thought ‘Now’s the time to do it, before you waste those miles on snow boots or something.’”
Such remarks are characteristic of Silver, a celebrated playwright who rose to prominence in the New York theater scene of the 1990s; his work, peppered with the kind of bon mots that also fill his conversation, has been characterized by noted theater scholar David Savran as being “in the tradition” of witty, gay writers like Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and Christopher Durang.
He enjoys the comparison to Orton, the iconoclastic British dramatist whom he calls “my favorite dead writer.”
Known for his satirical farces, Orton is also remembered for his salacious, posthumously-published diary – and for being beaten to death with a hammer by his longtime boyfriend.
“I always wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Silver says, echoing the famously black humor that was at the heart of Orton’s plays. “I was hoping to be bludgeoned to death at 36 but I wasn’t with anyone at the time. So, it’s still on my to-do list.”
Local audiences will get a chance for a deeper dive into Silver’s dark wit when his 2014 play “Too Much Sun” makes its LA debut, mounted by Indie Chi Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, where it opens March 2. He wrote it after the success of his 2012 Broadway play, “The Lyons” – but he’s written another play and moved to a different country since then, so he claims not to remember much about it.
“It happens in linear time,” he says coyly. “It begins, things happen, and then it ends. I remember that.”
Fortunately, more details are provided by the play’s synopsis – a celebrated actress abruptly walks out of her career and into her married daughter’s summer home in Cape Cod, where her unexpected and unwelcome arrival sets off a chain of hilarious and harrowing events – and director Bart DeLorenzo, who is helming the Los Angeles production, offers some additional insights by saying, “This is a play about how you can remake your life. It starts out with one character making a dramatic change, and by the end, every single character has made a huge transformation, for better or for worse.”
Personal transformation, says Silver, is something he believes the theater can facilitate – but he is skeptical about its power to transform on a cultural level.
“The reality is,” he says, “that theater communicates on too small a scale, and to too rarified an audience, to really effect social change.”
He hastens to add, “I’m not diminishing its role in the world, it has important things to contribute – but I think it’s generally a reflection of the culture, as opposed to a leader,” he says.
“Theater is to the culture what haute couture is to The Gap.”
He elaborates on that proclamation with a reminiscence about first moving to New York when Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” was on Broadway.
“People were all talking about what an important thing this was,” he says. “It’s a masterpiece and all that, but I don’t think the people who were fag-bashing in Central Park went to see it.”
On reflection, however, he adds, “But I know entertainment effects change. If you look at something like ‘Will and Grace,’ I think having a gay-focused sitcom did change the culture. And I think ‘Will and Grace’ would not have happened without ‘Torch Song Trilogy.’ So, maybe theater doesn’t really affect the main culture, but it lays the seeds that grow into things that can.”
When asked if he has any ideas about how theater could reach wider audiences, Silver can’t resist the opportunity for another pithy remark.
“I think theater should be made less accessible,” he says. “Too many people are allowed into the theater these days – with their naked toes overflowing out of their sandals, and their Slurpees, and their bottles of wine. I liked the days when it was just rich old ladies in fur coats.”
More earnestly, he continues, “One of the great differences between theater in London and New York is the cost. The cost to see a Fringe show, certainly, is dirt cheap, but even the cost to see a hit West End musical is a third of what it costs to see a Broadway show, and probably a third to produce. The answer is clearly economics.”
Still, he thinks the theater is in a healthy place. “There have been a lot of voices that have been shut out for a very long time,” he says, “and I think that those voices are being welcomed now, in great numbers.”
He’s quick to point out that he is not referring to the voices of queer artists like himself. “The reality is that gay people – or as I like to call them, homosexuals – were never shut out of the theater,” he says. “In the ‘90s, I sat in the offices of a lot of theaters, and I looked though a lot of scripts – great mountains of verbiage. Gay people were never shut out of the theater – we ran the theater.”
“So, I never had a sense of being shut out,” he insists. “I’ve been shut out of many things, but the theater is not one of them.”
Does his sexuality shape the sensibility that comes across in his work?
“I don’t know how I could answer that,” he says, thoughtfully, “because it’s the only sensibility that I have.”
“There’s a lot of me in every character,” he concedes. “Every character has some element of me that sort of has exploded and found new voice – but I write the world as I see it, and as I inhabit it.”
Steering the conversation back to “Too Much Sun,” he observes that it’s a little different than many of his plays.
“It’s funny and sad,” he says, “but it’s full of hope. It’s much more generous to its characters than I generally have a reputation for being – I think people see me as a misanthrope.”
Is that how he thinks of himself?
“No,” he insists, going for one last zinger. “I think of myself as 35 and very thin.”
“Too Much Sun” will perform March 2 – April 21 at the Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.). Tickets and more information are available by calling (310) 477-2055 or at OdysseyTheatre.com.