At the heart of The Lyons, the acid-tongued Broadway comedy by Nicky Silver, is the performance of Linda Lavin, who inhabits the role of Rita Lyons with such comic skill that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. As the wife of a dying man (Dick Latessa as Ben Lyons), Rita is the kind of heartless character that audiences love to laugh along with, even as they’re sucking the life out of everyone else with whom they come into contact.
Silver, for whom this is his Broadway debut after years of successful runs downtown with plays like Pterodactyls and Raised in Captivity (most of them with biting central female roles), has written an often mean-spirited, highly funny play in The Lyons that compels throughout despite occasionally lacking heart.
The play, a strangely exciting blend of naturalism and absurdism, opens as Rita sits beside her husband, choosing furnishings out of House Beautiful magazine with which to redecorate the living room they’ve shared for years, the stained contents of which he defends and she loathes. Soon, they’re joined by their daughter Lisa, a recovering alcoholic with two offstage sons of her own that Rita doesn’t particularly care for, and their gay son Curtis, whose boyfriend the other Lyons have never met after three years of dating.
Clearly, there’s plenty of dysfunction here. Secrets are exposed, once-muffled desires resurface, and dying resentments hold on for their last moments of vigorous cantankerousness. Though the first act takes place solely in Ben’s hospital room, the second act takes us out of this setting and into an empty apartment, where Curtis, a writer of short stories, is taken by a real estate agent on what the agent thinks is just another routine real estate pitch.
Silver’s way with reversals is masterful. There are several pivotal moments throughout the play where are expectations are thrillingly smashed. Besides for Lavin’s performance, Dick Latessa is also fantastic and Michael Esper is suitably wounded. If Kate Jennings Grant, as Lisa, gives a somewhat less textured performance, it’s a fine one nevertheless.
The pitch-perfect direction is by Mark Brokaw, who keeps us laughing even as the subject matter of the play veers further and further toward the macabre (who knew so many laugh lines could be at the expense of a man dying of cancer without feeling totally distasteful?). If the play’s final scene, which allows ample opportunities for Lavin to take command, is a bit of a letdown, at least the tone of the piece softens for a brief moment as the play draws to a close and Curtis, who speaks throughout about feeling isolated from people, decides to form a small connection.
It’s a brief moment of humanity that ends this wicked play, which could have been truly heartbreaking had the playwright imbued more moments with a touch of lightness or sincerity. As it is, The Lyons allows Linda Lavin to provide a master class in acting and provokes some nearly uncontrollable laughs in spite of difficult material. It’s not for everyone, but for those craving dark comedy, The Lyons is king despite its subtle imperfections.