"It's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf!," the lady next to me exclaimed when the lights came up at intermissionthough Nicky Silver's 2011 play has a lot more laughs, to be sure. But you know how it is, if you put a bunch of laboratory mice in a tiny cage, they start biting and fighting and all sorts of terrible things? All sorts of things New Yorkers are alleged to be quite proud of? Well, there you go. Even in the face of eternity, the Lyons are a gang of spitfires.
I really enjoyed it, and all the twists and turns in the story are pretty impressive. Bobby Miller is the larger-than-life father, fantastical even in his minimal physical performance in a hospital bed, occasionally writhing in torment as his wife (the intriguing Judi Mann) exhibits all sorts of very funny, passive-aggressive behaviors: not listening, getting stories wrong (though we're never quite sure which parts are wrong), and blithely shoving her family through all sorts of what Gail Sheehy once called "passages."
In the end, to me, the big question of the night is "is the mom good or evil?" She says she married her husband (essentially) out of sympathy, and just endured everything that came along after that. But, based on her own behavior, this seems a little pat, a little smug.
And, fortunately, Ms. Mann (as Rita) is stylish and an engaging comic actress, even as a poster-child for cold-hearted wives and parents everywhere. It's a good thing she has a good sense of humorand terrific legs, too. (And, as you can see from the photo, she resembles Linda Lavin, who originated the role.) Still, I can't help but wonder how many people get married just because they think it's "normal" or "it's time" or "he'll die someday, and I can do what I want." And how everyone deals so differently with the idea that "life goes on," even after one's own life-partner is simply gone.
Then again, if her husband (Mr. Miller) were always an overbearing whiner and a cheapskate to boot, she may be pretty well justified in her shockingly dismissive attitude. Bobby Miller is hilarious, though, in his tiny brushstrokes of physical comedy, with great bellows of exasperation. It's the Bickersons all over again, but this time going down that last lonesome road, for better or worse.
So you can tell it strikes an astringent tone, and that there's a lot to try to balance out. Wayne Solomon directs; look closely to see how he coaxes these highly intelligent actors into the asymmetry of guilt and indulgence and selflessness and corruption. It's fascinating and delightful.
Somehow the Irish beauty Meghan Maguire (a former New Yorker) fits in perfectly as their daughter Lisa, her alcoholism (on stage) becoming perfectly understandable too, after not too long. Lisa and Charlie Barron's Curtis (the prickly, peevish son) find ways to reach out and make connections with the regular world, eventually, in spite of everything. And, believe me, "everything" covers a lot of territory here. At least there are signs the two of them may gradually overcome all the bad lessons their parents taught them growing up.
Julie Layton is the indomitable nurse who's seen it all, and comes loaded for bear; and Mr. Barron and Aaron Orion Baker (as Brian) are surprisingly terrific together in a scene at the top of act two. In my notes I wrotea couple of times"long scene" to describe their sustained back-and-forth after intermission. But when things turned suddenly, I ended up not regretting it a bit.
The only thing I do regret is the state of career path for both Mr. Barron and Mr. Baker. Mr. Barron almost always plays (ostensibly) unlikable characters, and Mr. Baker is almost always cast in (ostensibly) marginal roles. This seems like a gross injustice, and I look forward to newer, bigger opportunities for both young men in the coming season.
Through September 1, 2013, at the COCA black box theater, 524 Trinity Ave., just south of the gates of University City, MO. For more information visit www.maxandlouie.com
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association