Her statuesque sturdiness cannot completely counter the lithe way she can draw blood with the gentle touch of a hand or a line of dialogue. And though severe of manner, her fiery glares ready to reduce to ash anyone who crosses her, she’s also always just ready to yield to the tiniest kindness. Lyles, who’s apparently firmly in middle age but bursting with the anxious resourcefulness of an off-the-bus ingénue with something to prove, is a soft and slithering mass of contradictions, her next move impossible to predict.
Such calculated uncertainty is of tremendous comfort while watching these plays, which have both been directed by Billy Hopkins, because you know that you’ll at least be anchored to some sort of human reality. In Eduardo Machado’s first-act In Paradise, Lyles is a 60-year-old protofeminist socialist named Marilyn who’s seen and done it all, and most of the people along the way; worse, she’s been smarting for seven years over being left by her much-younger husband of 16 years, Carlos, because he fell for another man. In the second play, Nick Norman’s She Plundered Him, she’s Keep, an English mother who loves her debilitated husband and her virile adult son - especially her son - but isn’t prepared for the consequences.
Vicious in the first act as she swirls around multiple layers of betrayals and obfuscations and warmly compelling in the second act in trying to make sense of this most bizarre of triangles, Lyles outlines a full examination of contemporary womanhood. The battles between activist and homemaker, between matron and mock-madam, and between forgiving hatred and relentless affection never cease in Lyles’s portrayals: Marilyn and Keep seem like sisters of a sort, separated by an ocean and about 16 years, but one and the same in searching for new ways to learn feasible rules for the crazy games of the heart.
Hopkins has crisply staged both shows, making full use of the closet-intimate space; and Maruti Evans’s elaborate mirrored-box set effectively underscoring the way every character is haunted by visions of who they think they should be. But little else is as striking.
At the performance I attended, nothing in the supposedly sizzlingly serious script could stem the tide of audience laughter in She Plundered Him. The son (James Chen) pursuing his mother to the ends of their emotional earth, while the tripolar patriarch (Mark Elliot Wilson) stands by helplessly - and, when they consummate their union, is asleep on the bed next to them... it’s not just toeing the border of the ridiculous, it’s been granted outright citizenship. The men’s performances, splattered with puffed-chest, basso-profundo bravado, add little credibility to such heightened familial trysting.
Vassallo is more reasonable and restrained in In Paradise - almost too much so. Though Carlos has been spiritually vivisected by the passions and the abandonments he’s both experienced and effected, Vassallo makes him so hopelessly dumbstruck and vocally one-tone that you can’t relate to him. It’s more intellectual than active despair, which lets you glimpse at the basic workings of his mind but never understand the depths of his pain. Everything you need to know about him, you really feel you learn from Marilyn.
That’s not that surprising. Great actors have a way of informing everything around them, of turning the flat into the three-dimensional merely with their presence. Lyles is working at this every moment of both In Paradise and She Plundered Him, and succeeds to an astonishing degree given the odds she’s facing. She unlocks the truth of not just the women she’s playing, but the men as well, who just don’t seem able to speak for themselves. Both plays would unquestionably be better if there were more sensible voices to be heard, but Lyles speaks almost loudly and persuasively enough on her own.
In Paradise / She Plundered Him