When I walked into the Vineyard Theatre to see Nicky Silver’s new play, The Lyons, I noticed that the house music was jazzy but mostly reminiscent of TV sitcom theme music. I then noticed that the “curtain” for the show was a black screen with “The Lyons” emblazoned on it. Finally, I saw that the play was broken up into two acts, the second of which had three scenes. The first act and act two’s three scenes all had titles, as would a sitcom episode.
This all turned out to be fitting: The Lyons does play a bit like a sitcom, and is one of Silver’s most laugh-out-loud funny plays. It’s dark comedy, to be sure, but very funny, nonetheless, as we watch the Lyon family duke it out to see who becomes king of the hospital room.
At rise, Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is in a hospital bed and his wife, Rita (Linda Lavin), is chattering on about how she wants to redecorate their 30-year old living room. Ben and Rita’s adult children come to visit: Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) is divorced with two children, and is also a recovering alcoholic. Curtis (Michael Esper) is gay and talks about his partner of three years, Peter. (Later, we’ll meet a Nurse (Brenda Pressley) and Brian (Gregory Wooddell), a real estate agent.)
The Lyons is a witty, funny and well played tale of family dynamics. Mark Brokaw’s direction is perfect, pacing the play so that the exact right moments are punctuated. Allen Moyer’s simple scenic design is clean (and, in the hospital room, rightly antiseptic) and makes up a nice jungle gym on which the Lyons can play. Adding to the mood is David Lander’s lighting design, which is subtle and effective.
I was rather unimpressed with the previous Nicky Silver play I saw, Three Changes, so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. Pleasantly (though it’s a dark comedy and deals with matters of life and death), I found this to be smartly written, and I felt like I knew the Lyons. Silver wrote in what sounded to me like real voices, and I was instantly hooked when Rita Lyons blurts out this permeating syllogism: “If you quit, you’re a quitter. But if you fight, then you’re a fighter.” How insightful! I was heartily laughing at the snappy dialogue (alongside playwright Silver, who happened to be sitting next to me) and, later, I was fully engrossed and listening intensely as the family dealt with more dramatic matters.
Making up the family is a great foursome. Latessa does a lot, though he is confined to a hospital bed, and offers a funny and sympathetic portrait of a cantankerous old man about to face death. Grant is able as Lisa, the fragile Lyons daughter. Lisa’s fragility could make her seem whiney or grating, but Grant strikes a fine balance so Lisa is neither of those things.
Michael Esper impresses as a lonely young man. Curtis is looking for companionship yet he constantly pushes away the people who are actually in his life. Esper transforms into the character; actually, it’s more accurate to say he transforms into the person, as, in Esper’s hands, Curtis is a living, breathing man. Esper (from American Idiot and most recently on the boards in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures) brings an appropriate guardedness to Curtis, which makes it all the more powerful when he allows himself to be vulnerable and break down.
But the star is the great Linda Lavin as the Lyons matriarch. As brought to life by Lavin, Rita is a sharp-tongued dynamo, and she won’t let you forget it. Lavin’s inflections and spot-on line readings allow her to blabber on and on about ice-blue paint or a Marrakesh-themed living room without being boring. Instead, the audience and I relished every one of Rita’s benign proposals. Moreover, Rita’s observations are not without acid, and Lavin flung each verbal harpoon with zest. She portrayed a teacher in Collected Stories a couple of seasons ago, and it’s fair to say she’s playing teacher here, too, giving a master class to everyone in the audience.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit vineyardtheatre.org.
- Though The Lyons just opened, it's already been extended. This American family dramedy will now run through November 11.
- Star Linda Lavin talks to Broadway.com about working on The Lyons.
Production stills taken by Carol Rosegg. Visit Broadwayworld.com for more.