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NEW YORK – Linda Lavin surprised theater pundits at the start of the season by turning down plum featured roles she had originated in not one but two productions transferring to Broadway, Other Desert Cities and Follies. Instead, she opted to do Nicky Silver’s corrosive comedy The Lyons at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. The tart yet unexpectedly compassionate slice of familial dysfunction has now moved uptown with its impeccable six-member ensemble intact, and Lavin’s exceptional performance as the brittle matriarch of this messed-up clan removes any doubt that she made the right choice.
At first glance, Rita Lyons might appear to be the familiar stereotype of the suffocating Jewish wife and mother. She doles out unsolicited criticism to her husband Ben (Dick Latessa) and their adult children, gay writer Curtis (Michael Esper) and recovering alcoholic Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant). Even an absent grandson doesn’t escape her withering honesty: “Have you had him tested? Well dear, it’s just that he seems, to me, to be just a little bit retarded.”
What makes her even more awful is that her belittling, acid-dipped assessments are being delivered in a hospital room. Ben is succumbing to late-stage cancer as Rita blithely flips through an interior design magazine for ideas to redecorate the living room after he’s gone. Wearing pearls and a smart suit (Michael Krass’ outfits for her are the epitome of matronly chic), with her hair and makeup immaculately done, this is clearly not a woman who’s falling apart at the prospect of impending widowhood.
Rita has also somehow neglected to tell Lisa and Curtis about their father’s condition until the end, responding to their protests by saying either she didn’t want to bother them or that she was busy playing backgammon: “I was in a tournament!”
But thanks to the complexities of Lavin’s characterization, the penetrating insights of Silver’s writing, and the imperceptible calibrations of Mark Brokaw’s crisp production, Rita is no mere monster of insensitivity. The degree to which she accepts responsibility for her children being “sad and unforgiving,” and for her own entrapment in a 40-year marriage to a man she never loved is clear. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s atoning. Silver’s play doesn’t go in for such banalities. But in addition to being a maestro of timing with her comic delivery, Lavin has a peerless ability to humanize her characters even while exposing their lacerating edges.
Taking place entirely in Ben’s hospital room, the first act is black-comedy perfection. The chronic frictions and festering resentments of families are probably the most over-trafficked theme in American playwriting, but Silver finds plenty of fresh bite, and the sheer savagery of his observation here is breathtaking. Watching it brings the dueling sensations of wicked mirth and squirming discomfort at being trapped in the hell of someone else’s family horrors. That these are exaggerations of our own is what gives the play its teeth.
Lavin’s formidable Rita is matched by Latessa’s Ben, a man whose body is being consumed yet he’s still seething – spewing profanities now that he can say what he feels, without consequences. His anger is both hilarious and harrowing, his fear affecting. The bitter disdain with which he responds to Curtis’ offer of forgiveness is a stunning illustration of what these kids were up against. The loneliness of each one of the four main characters is drawn with a candor that takes its cue from Rita.
The second act takes a darker turn and has been tightened since the play’s Off Broadway premiere, dropping an opening monologue by Lisa at an AA meeting. Of the remaining two scenes, the first covers an unnerving encounter between Curtis and a real estate broker (Gregory Wooddell) in an empty apartment, which is compelling in its awkwardness and remains entirely unpredictable as it turns ugly. Looking suddenly like a helpless boy, Esper’s emotionally exposed work is very strong in the final family reckoning that follows back at the hospital, where shell-shocked Curtis is now under the supervision of the same nurse (Brenda Pressley) who cared for his father.
To go into more detail would spoil the surprises of this barbed zinger of a play. Suffice it to say that while Silver is wary of sentimentality or false reconciliation, he deftly shows the ways in which the remaining three Lyons family members reach out for a human connection. Whether they do this with clumsy earnestness or with unapologetic, selfish pragmatism, the playwright’s refusal to judge them helps foster our own understanding of these injured and injurious people.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York
Cast: Linda Lavin, Dick Latessa, Michael Esper, Kate Jennings Grant, Brenda Pressley, Gregory Wooddell
Playwright: Nicky Silver
Director: Mark Brokaw
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: David Lander
Music/sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Kathleen K. Johnson
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