By Frank Rich, May 4, 1983

Whoever the ubiquitous Shel Silverstein is, he's certainly unpredictable. He first came to prominence as a somewhat inane court jester to Hugh Hefner, supplying cartoons to the pages of Playboy magazine. Mr. Silverstein has also performed his own ribald ballads on records and, in recent years, become a successful children's author. His current book, "A Light in the Attic," is so popular with kids of all ages that it's been on the adult best-seller list for months.

Now we have Shel Silverstein the playwright, and this may eventually prove his most fruitful career to date. On the basis of his four one-act sketches in "Wild Life," at the Vandam Theater, Mr. Silverstein as yet knows much more about cracking jokes than constructing plays. But the jokes can be funny, and they are informed by a bracingly caustic view of the contemporary landscape. If this writer finds the theatrical skills worthy of his wicked humor, audiences will quake.


All four segments of "Wild Life" are smartly acted and benefit from Art Wolff's direction and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's sets, but only the longest and last really works. It is "The Lady or the Tiger Show," originally seen in a shorter form at the Ensemble Studio Theater two years ago. Set in an electronic command center beneath the Houston Astrodome, it tells of "the greatest game show, soap opera and sports spectacular in the history of the television industry."

This is an extravaganza in wich a contestant, a wimpy Southern hick named Lamar Darfield, is thrust into a playing field before 120,000 screaming fans, including the President of the United States, and asked to open one of two doors. Behind the winning door is the woman Lamar worshipped from afar 20 years earlier, now ready to marry him at last. (The network has paid her royally to do so.) Behind the other door is "a ferocious, man-eating tiger" prepared to battle Lamar to the death. Should the contestant make the wrong choice and lose his struggle with the tiger, his would-be bride will sing "Ave Maria" to the crowd and go on to a showbiz career as the new "American sweetheart."

The play's protagonist is Elliot Cushman, the show's glib, cigar-chomping martinet of a producer. While the countdown to airtime rapidly proceeds, he must deal with a nutty series of last-minute crises. A female monitor of television "standards and practices" arrives to protest the show's cruel treatment of the tiger. An Irish bishop suddenly wants to renege on his promise to perform the show's opening benediction. Both Lamar and his dreamgirl are quivering wrecks, understandably deranged by a most literal form of stage fright.

Yet Elliot–and presumably Mr. Silverstein–cynically believes that everyone is a hypocrite who has his price. Using the scurviest means imaginable–from sexual and financial bribery to outright threats of Mafia-like blackmail and violence–the producer shuts the others up and gets his show on the road. When a seemingly unsolvable calamity presents itself at zero-hour, Elliot springs his most Machiavellian trick–one that raises the playwright's already sick diagnosis of human nature to the apocalyptic.

The cast is at one with the jagged, even surreal nastiness of Mr. Silverstein's comedy. Christopher Murney is wittily hateful as Eliot [sic], especially when he sheds crocodile tears over his immigrant grandmother while explaining how game shows further the American Dream. Henderson Forsythe is a hoot as the priest, a self-styled "people's padre" prone to speaking in the street jive of his flock and preaching the religious possibilities of three-card monte. Raynor Scheine, sweating in full gladiator's regalia, finds the dark laughter in the pathetic Lamar, and Julie Hagerty, the delightful comedienne of the "Airplane" films, brings some strikingly dizzy surprises to the bride-to-be in white lace.

The much briefer, pre-intermission warm-ups to "The Lady and the Tiger Show" are no less naughty, but they're padded one-joke bits leading nowhere. Two of the jokes amuse up to a severely circumscribed point. In "Nonstop", a bridegroom (well done by Robert Trebor) suffers the ultimate prenuptials psychosomatic ailment; in "Charades," a parlor game is played to its most absurd hilt. In between comes "I'm Good to my Doggies," a confrontation between a social-services investigator and a blind derelict that strains for both laughs and social comment.

But intermittent as "Wild Life" is, one always admires the author for his gumption: when he's not attacking God and country, he'll even cast aspersions on the sexual proclivities of seeing-eye dogs. At a time when many new playwrights write slickly but have little fresh to say, here is one who writes haphazardly but speaks in a strong, iconoclastic voice. It's definitely in Mr. Silverstein's interest and ours that he stay put in the theater to perfect his new trade.