Lively premiere explores a family life far from ‘Perfect’ 

In the twisted world of New York playwright Nicky Silver’s "Past Perfect," now receiving an impressive world premiere at Theatre Rhinoceros, everyone loves the wrong person, and almost everyone’s a little sadistic, or masochistic, or both. Brittle, icy Mom dreams of the boy she adored at 17, who didn’t love her back; caustic son Seth, a failed actor, is enamored of his high-school crush, Charlie, who in turn pines for the lover — now dying of AIDS — who purposefully infected him; alcoholic daughter Betsy wants one of her former husbands back — the abusive one; Dad, upstairs dying, sees visions of the child he truly loved, whom his wife aborted long ago.

And there’s more: Betsy loves her brother, but it’s not reciprocated; Dad, despite his philandering, possibly really does love his cold-fish wife. And then there’s Mom herself: When Betsy and Seth plaintively ask, "Don’t you love us?" she equivocates. "Love you? Hate you? … I do know, I don’t like you."

At times, Silver’s dysfunctional family comedy — and yes, it is a comedy — makes you squirm with pity and embarrassment for the lonely characters. In real life, people don’t unload their deepest, most painful feelings quite so readily. But Silver walks the delicate line between anguish and humor quite well, and by the end you’re enough invested in the sad plight of these disturbed characters that you empathize. They may seem freakish at first, but ultimately, they’re all too human.

In addition to tightly written, fraught interactions among the characters, each has a spot-lit confessional monologue to the audience; I wish the otherwise inventive playwright had come up with a less-formulaic solution to the problem of character development. But that’s about my only quibble — that, and some awkward and stiff blocking along with too-obviously faked slaps — in director John Dixon’s otherwise fine production.

The actors, some of whom appeared last season in Theatre Rhino’s excellent staging of Silver’s "Beautiful Child," form a tight ensemble. As sparring siblings who somehow need each other, Clayton B. Hodges and Libby O’Connell are utterly convincing. Rhino associate artistic director Matt Weimer brings his usual combination of low-key charm and spontaneity to his role as Seth’s new boyfriend. Donald Currie is touching as bedridden Dad struggling to come to terms with his life. And Rhino regular Adrienne Krug turns in a carefully calibrated portrait of a woman whose capacity to love was short-circuited at age 17. Also notable is set designer Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s den, its rich and warm hues contrasting with the bleak family dynamics.

Past Perfect ***

Where: Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. April 29, May 6, 13, and 20; closes May 20

Tickets: $15 to $25

Contact: (415) 861-5079 or www.TheRhino.org

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