Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Lyons" - Hilarious and Painful Family Dysfunction

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Carol Rosegg

You'll laugh till you cry and smile through your tears at The Lyons, probably the most biting comedy/drama about family dysfunction to arrive on the scene this year. Dripping with acidic-laced humor and punctuated with a continual ego-deflating wit, playwright Nicky Silver and director Mark Brokaw have set the bar pretty high in this work about facing one's demons, moving on and letting go, whether one really wishes to or not. It's a hilariously compelling story and filled with an absolutely superb cast.

Lyon family patriarch Ben (Dick Latessa) is in a New York hospital, while his wife of many years Rita (Linda Lavin) sits in the room looking at a magazine, though not quite at his bedside. Arriving soon after are the couple's daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a recovering alcoholic who may have a new man in her life; and son Curtis (Michael Esper), who makes his living as a writer of children's stories and who has a boyfriend they've never seen.

It should be noted Ben and Rita don't really get along with their parents, albeit for different reasons, and this is the first time all four have been together in one room for quite a long time. However upon arriving, the children are told their father is dying and they don't have much time to say their goodbyes. (Ben and Rita didn't want to worry their children until they had to.) This unexpected news and subsequent ripping open of old family wounds threatens to send Lisa back to the bottle ("it's more fun when you're drinking") and Curtis into an emotional explosion. 

Things are not made easer by the fact Ben and Rita's matrimony has long since deteriorated from wedded bliss, if such a thing was ever there in the first place. Their relationship now reduced to angry back and forth arguments ranging from how Rita will redecorate their living room once Ben is gone, to her perennial disappointment in the marriage. All of which causes both their children to be drawn back into the family drama, with Lisa revealing something explosive about Curtis' boyfriend, while Curtis notes that his sister's new love interest is actually her abusing ex-husband.

The Lyons could easily be a riotous black comedy about a dysfunctional family spinning further and further out of control, but Silver has no intention of letting his characters (or the audience) off that easy. Hidden under each member of the Lyons clan's long-simmering personal anger and pain is a terrible longing for something more than what they have, or what they believe they used to have. As Ben says to Curtis in a rare quiet moment, when asked why he's stayed with Rita all these years, he answers "because I loved her." More importantly, Ben still loves the person he believes Rita once was, an exchange which explains much about the depths and limits of their relationship.

The play does not provide answers so much as it asks questions, for in reality none of the people portrayed, except perhaps the hospital nurse (Brenda Pressley), is truly a sympathetic character or particularly likable were you to actually meet them. For one member of the family, a case of unrequited love veers dangerously into stalker territory; while with another it's continually making excuses for a guilty party for the way things have turned out. There's also the question of how long should parents decide to take care of their children before they finally cut the apron strings and heave them out of the nest so the adults can move on with their own lives. (Parenthood this ain't.)

Lavin brilliantly brings Rita to life as a bitter woman trapped in a situation she never should have agreed to and, up until this point, has only been going through the motions of her life. But with change now being thrust upon the family, she may have one final chance for some happiness, transient though it may be, and she is determined to grab hold while she can. Probably the most defining thing about the character is that she's a woman with a spine of steel. Not so much combative, though there is that, but a powerful determination to stick with the choices she's made, both in the past and in the future, regardless of what anyone else might think.

Latessa cuts a poignant figure as Ben, a man dying of cancer but not quite yet ready to go into that final good night and still up for a verbal battle with anyone within reach. He's also the most sympathetic character in the play, though he has the habit, like most of the rest of the family (excluding Lavin) of blaming everyone except himself for his situation. Yet you can't help but feel sorry for this man who, at the end of his life, has so many regrets.

Esper plays Curtis often brimming with anger and resentment, especially when his carefully ordered world is pulled out from him-which it is more than once. Cloaking himself in a false aura of normalcy, he has some serious issues regarding obsession and acceptance to work out; ones which only serve to drive away those he desires the most.

Grant's portrayal of Lisa is perhaps initially the most stereotypical of the bunch, a woman with a drinking problem who's also in a continual downward spiral with her relationships. Her confessions at an AA meeting are quite telling. Fortunately Grant manages to put a human face on Lisa, making one care about the character and wanting to know what happens to her even after the show ends.

Pressley and Gregory Wooddell nicely round out the cast, Wooddell playing an amiable insurance agent and wannabe actor with some interesting secrets of his own.

Mark Brokaw's direction is tight, sure-handed and powerful. Mixing together the script's various levels of humor and drama to allow all the elements in the play to come together perfectly for maximum effect.

Allen Moyer's sets are well done, as are the costumes are by Michael Krass. The lighting by David Lander changes from being properly stark in the hospital scenes to being properly subdued for the apartment ones. However, work by fight choreographer Thomas Schall doesn't quite pay off here, with one particular confrontation scene (between Esper and Wooddell) feeling too staged to be real.

The Lyons is a fascinating journey into the depths of hell one family creates for themselves. Thanks to an excellent script, direction and a top-notch cast, it's a journey well worth taking.

The Lyons
Featuring: Linda Lavin (Rita Lyons), Dick Latessa (Ben Lyons), Kate Jennings Grant (Lisa Lyons), Michael Esper (Curtis Lyons), Brenda Pressley (Nurse), Gregory Wooddell (Brian)

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Production Managers: Ben Morris, David Nelson
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
Casting: Henry Russell Bregstein, CSA

Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: or 212-303-0303

Running time: 2 Hours, with one intermission

Closes: December 22, 2011

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