Manbites Dog Theater describes its current offering, Nicky Silver’s Fit to Be Tied, as a “darkly hilarious holiday comedy.” In the two-act play–which focuses on the antics of three characters who inhabit, during Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the New York apartment of Arloc (Mark Filiaci), a youngish, gay Richie Rich–Silver sends up with maniacal zeal the traditional family and its cherished holiday gatherings. The playwright’s well-developed sense of the absurd and sheer linguistic abandon impel this relentlessly paced (black) comedy of (bad) manners. Brisk dialogue rendered so beautifully by Lynda Clark as Arloc’s mother Nessa–a middle-aged woman with two loveless marriages behind her and nothing to show for it but a drinking problem (Arloc’s father left his son the family fortune)–manifests Silver’s flair for the well-constructed parenthetical phrase. If Nessa, who is equal parts Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Diller, were to write this review, the reader would likely get lost in her parentheses. “I’m completely ornamental,” she tells her son early in the play, “I could be a paperweight.” Later, she describes her hands–which, she laments, can’t be lifted–as “tweed gloves a size too big.”
It’s no accident that Nessa, who functions as the centerpiece of the play despite Arloc’s intermittent first-person narration, compares her body to inanimate objects. Nessa, Arloc and Nessa’s current husband, Carl (played by Al Singer), have allowed themselves to exist in states of suspended animation, unhappy but unwilling to do anything about it–that is, until the play begins.
Nessa wants out of her loveless marriage to Carl, who is more interested in his treadmill than in sex, but she hasn’t ever assumed responsibility for herself, much less cared for her son, on whom she is financially dependent, as a parent. She shrugs off the pathos with humor and booze. When she finally decides to make a break for it, Nessa shows up on her son’s doorstep at what appears to be a most inopportune moment. Arloc, who clothes himself in fantasy the way his mother drapes herself in exquisite garments, has brought home Boyd, a mild-mannered Radio City Music Hall angel. Boyd happens to be narcoleptic–an inspired comic touch that drives home the difficulty the characters face when they try to make changes in their lives. Arloc and Nessa may be “fit to be tied,” not because they are angry, but because they refuse to do anything about it for so long.
Nessa acts as the dynamo at the heart of the play in another way. The mother-son relationship between Arloc and Nessa is a primary focus of the work, but just as interesting as their bitchy ballet of love and loathing is the way their relationship is mediated by father figures–Arloc’s father and Nessa’s first husband, long since dead, and Carl, who at one time tried to be a stepfather to Arloc. At one point, Nessa literally acts out another ghostly presence that haunts her relationship with Carl: his first wife, Adele. There’s a great deal of complexity in the way Silver articulates the ways that people relate to each other through others. Ultimately, Nessa and Arloc seem to reject not the problem of that triangulation, but, instead, the idea that their third term must be a paternal figure of some sort. They prefer their fallen angel, Boyd.
For all its apparent edginess–and, yes, the play makes good on the S&M premise of its title–Fit to Be Tied ultimately forwards a surprisingly sentimental vision of reunion and redemption. You may think you’re in for another chilling rendition of family-style gothic holiday horror–like the 1972 Aaron Spelling made-for-television movie, Home for the Holidays: Deadly Desires, wherein an elderly man, played by Walter Brennan, thinks his wife, Julie Harris, is poisoning him, so he invites his daughters home for the holidays to investigate. But, in fact, you’re treated to a not altogether unpleasant (but, then again, a not entirely coherent) reworking of Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, with aspects of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life thrown in for good measure.
No, Arloc doesn’t attempt suicide only to be convinced by an avuncular angel that the world would be worse off without him. But the play sustains a focus on deaths and transformations, a conjunction signified in visual terms by Boyd wearing his ostentatiously winged angel costume more often than seems necessary, given that he has been fired from the post at Radio City. Boyd, whose winsome qualities actor Wade Ferguson Dansby develops with appropriate delicacy, is clearly defined as a figure of transition; although he isn’t wholly responsible for the changes, his arrival marks important transformations in his own life as well as in those of Arloc, Nessa and Carl.
Like the Capra film, Fit to be Tied mines the aesthetic of the winter holiday season–its suspension of linear time, its demand that we reassemble family units that we presumably left behind for good reasons, its kitschy visuals–and ultimately considers in a profound way the distinctions between fantasy and reality when it comes to hearth and home. Nessa, Arloc and Boyd are all flawed and yet fantastic. The somewhat somber jewel tones of the set–red, black and gold–are gradually transformed by the rich ribbons of light and color Boyd and Nessa bring to the apartment in their own ways. As part of a family in (re)formation (there’s a reference to the holy threesome, but Nessa assumes the role of a wise man rather than the Virgin Mary), they each learn how to enjoy realities that are doomed to fall short of fantasies. They undertake a creative project together that signifies the ability to shake off former states of suspended animation and to make good on the promise of intimacy and community the family structure is reputed to make possible.
If you’re in the midst of a holiday season that threatens to make you so angry that you’ll be fit to be tied, Silver’s story offers an appealing respite. The play turns an unusual threesome of individuals who grapple with serious life events somewhat self-destructively into an extraordinary family that creates an environment that nurtures the idiosyncratic ties that bind.