On the Philadelphia Main Line, the swath of suburbs just outside the city that are famously home to some of America’s most socially and financially elite, we meet the Duncan family. Arthur and Grace, now approaching late middle age, have expertly hidden behind a perfect veneer of family adoration for all their years of marriage and parenthood. They maneuver with efficiency around everything this image has cost them, from lack of true and meaningful love between them to the addictive vices they both cling to in defense. Their daughter, Emma, naive and neurotic, has brought home her first boyfriend, a man named Tommy, and the two mean to announce their engagement to Emma’s parents. Eclipsing this intended moment of familial joy, however, is the sudden arrival of Emma’s brother Todd, who left the family years ago to study sculpture. Todd’s return is marred by the announcement that he is gay and that he has AIDS, and his ability to operate outside the confines of their small universe begins to splinter their many fortifications. Todd’s presence alone demands the family’s brutal honesty with one another, and no relationship goes untouched in the ripple effect of this confrontation. The cataclysm that surrounds the Duncans as they are stripped of their ability to deny their truths any longer may just be enough to unravel them completely. Exposed to their own full manner of sins and unable to reclaim the son who refuses to cow to their idealized expectations of him, Grace and Arthur spiral. Emma, no longer able to blindfold herself against the truth about her dysfunctionality towards sexuality and romance, but neither able to confront it or her farce of a relationship with Tommy, hurls herself further into a storm of hypochondria and self-sabotage. Watching, always, is the looming skeleton of a dinosaur that Todd is assembling from the bones he digs up in the yard, as he reminds his broken family again and again that he will outlive them all, despite all the stakes against him.
Nicky Silver, a master of absurdity and black comedy, uses these tools to draw out the extremes found within all those who disguise their true selves. In moments of desperation, he captures the fearsome and raw torment in losing control of the most basic aspects of self-image. In his own words, the “broad comedy and utter despair” to be found in Pterodactyls is intentionally polarizing, often extreme, occasionally revulsive, and ultimately a stark picture of futile mortality. It is through these very basic illustrations of destructive human instinct that Pterodactyls does its best work, as a reminder that everything we touch is temporary, and all we can do to reckon with that is to live with truth.