Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2012
The Lyons by Nicky Silver. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by David Lander. Original music & sound design by David Van Tieghem. Cast: Linda Lavin, with Michael Esper, Kate Jennings Grant, Brenda Pressley, Gregory Wooddell, also starring Dick Latessa.
As Lavin plays her, Rita is a stunning repudiation of this type of role's traditional dramatic values (at least outside of its comfortable position within Silver's oeuvre). Poring through an interior design magazine while her husband Ben (Dick Latessa) lies dying of cancer in his hospital bed, then astonished that their daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) and son Curtis (Michael Esper) are outraged that they weren't informed of Dad's impending demise ("Why burden you? You have your own problems," Rita says), she basks in the glory of her own now-and-future happiness, which she's planning to pursue full-tilt as soon as Ben is out of the way. She's never loved him, you see, and she's not willing to sacrifice the best of her remaining years to continue the charade she's endured for decades.
Yet as the play unfolds, and we witness the lengths to which Rita will go to realize her dream of freedom, Lavin never lets a speck of doubt creep into her performance. She invests herself so fully in Rita and her dry personal cunning that you never sense an actress is putting you on or getting ready to let you off the hook. Rita clearly believes everything she says, and without so much as a glimmer in her eyes or a crook in her smile, Lavin convinces you that she's just the same.
You may want to hate someone who goes to such extravagant lengths to emotionally abandon all those around her, but it's simply not possible. Lavin connects Rita's present turnabout to her family's longstanding treatment of her, which makes her behavior seem almost—justified. And because that behavior so often takes the form of bracingly funny lacerations of those around her (when trying to set up a reluctant Lisa with a man down the hall who's in the end stages of lymphoma: "Is there someone better on the horizon?"), most of the time you're forced to laugh through your revulsion. Rita is too gloriously, over-the-top theatrical for you to not believe, and indeed hang on, every word she says.
Unfortunately, the same is not consistently true of the play that surrounds her. Despite game performances from the other actors and crisp direction from Mark Brokaw, The Lyons is considerably more star vehicle than story. Whenever the action shifts to one of the children, who supposedly embody everything Rita has grown to detest and must find some way to conduct the lives they've been ignoring for most of adulthood, the play sags and sogs.
This becomes most evident at the start of the second, and weaker, act. Here, upwards of 10 minutes is devoted to Curtis apparently apartment hunting with a hunky real-estate broker (Gregory Wooddell), ostensibly to establish the unsteady and unsafe standards by which Curtis has chosen to live. But there's no content here that couldn't have easily been folded into the lengthy and more engaging scene that returns us to the hospital immediately after. A second scene, focusing on Lisa's own derailed attempts at connecting with others, was present when the show opened earlier this season at the Vineyard, but is gone now; there's no reason I could discern for why that one was cut but this one remains.
Silver and Brokaw have done a great deal to pretty up the exterior (and Allen Moyer's squeaky-clean sets provide attractive accompaniments to their efforts), but they've fallen short of shaping a compelling evening. This is through no fault of the actors: Latessa's caustic eye-rolling resignation, Grant's pungent neuroticism, and Esper's off-handed charm are vital in creating what flesh and blood can be recognized onstage. (Wooddell and Brenda Presley, playing the on-call nurse, also go as far as their limited stage time allows.)
It's just that, as Rita will be first tell you, the Lyons are a family in name only. They're not linked by spirit, love, or even shared interests, but without a deeper purpose underneath it all the alienation each experiences rings false. As this fact creeps more and more into the writing, especially when Curtis becomes the focus post-intermission, you feel you're seeing an elaborate theatre-therapy sketch rather than a serious attempt at examining what makes these lonely souls tick, whether individually or collectively.