Saying that Linda Lavin is the best thing about Nicky Silver’s The Lyons is akin to saying that the sun is the center of the universe. It’s both obvious and doesn’t really give a full picture of all of the other elements so integral to that orbit.
Rita Lyons (Lavin), the brutal matriarch of Silver’s play, deftly directed by Mark Brokaw, is one of those acerbic characters that tend to get assigned to gifted veteran actors later on in their careers (see also: Arkin, Alan). Rita is, to say the least, insensitive to her husband Ben (Dick Latessa), actively dying before her on a hospital bed – thumbing through House Beautiful and thinking of foreign motifs in which she can redesign their home following his demise – and insulting to her children. She insists that one of daughter Lisa’s (Kate Jennings Grant) children is retarded and is less than supportive of the lifestyle and career of her gay writer son, Curtis (a haunting Michael Esper). She only tells them their father has a terminal illness as he lay on his literal deathbed. She’s hell-bent on starting her life anew, dependents be damned.
So why do we not hate Rita as much as we should? Certainly, Lavin herself is much to blame, imbuing Rita with a steely determination that she deserves everything she wants. Ben’s imminent death is the rip-cord pull she needs to finally find freedom in a world that, as this actress of great depth and transcendence communicates, has offered very little of to her. Silver, of course, also plays a major part, since he has created such a layered character. The lacerating Rita combines the pitch-perfect delivery of Neil Simon-era dialogue with the bite of an early Edward Albee drama, and Lavin divines every nuance, vocally, physically, emotionally, without ever showing a tic. The Lyons is a look at broken people who will either punish themselves or punish others for their station in life, but the playwright knows this is a comedy first, providing spoonfuls of sugar to make this otherwise bitter medicine go down easy.
Silver hasn’t just sharpened Rita’s talons since The Lyons’ Off-Broadway bow this fall at the Vineyard theatre; he’s refined the entire work. Sadly, this gives Grant and Latessa less with which to work – Silver has stripped the second act of an AA monologue for Lisa but replaced it with nothing, and Latessa gets little more than a flimsy cameo after the play’s first act. Structurally, Lyons remains a bit flimsy. But it also enhances our look at Curtis. In Esper’s hands, he’s the walking wounded, and provides a greater glimpse into the Lyons’ dysfunction. His emotional stasis, brilliantly rendered by the actor in a searing turn that shows just how painful malaise can be, elucidates us on the damaging toll Ben and Rita’s union has taken on its children and deepens the show.
Again, I reiterate that Lyons is primarily a comedy; Silver never sacrifices its humor to provide bite. And Brokaw’s staging is both brisk and economical. It’s remarkable how much information we can glean about this troubled family from so little. The marriage between Ben and Rita may have been one unhappy affair, but the one between Lavin and Silver is one that deserves a sequel.
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. http://www.thelyonsbroadway.com/
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