Another Broadway hit to follow The (wildly successful) Color Purple, Nicky Silver’s play makes similarly crowd-pleasing work of unlikely material. A nuclear meltdown of a family has converged on a hospital deathbed, the immobile rod at their centre a father finally free from any pretense that he respects, or even loves them.
As Ben Lyons lies dying in sweary state, his nearest and not-so-dearest are more than a little reluctant to play the dancing courtiers. His wife Rita flicks through glossy magazines, plotting extravagant decorative schemes to export Morocco and French Provincial to their tired suburban living room, which her memory has stained with misery and resignation. “Your mother is a bitch,” her ailing husband is fond of announcing; as the play progresses, we are hammered with the evident, equally baldly stated truth that the pair’s disharmony has produced two children incapable of functioning. Hungry chicks waiting to see how the worm will be split, neither Lisa nor Curtis Lyons have much of a claim on youthful good fortune to date. Lisa is a recovering alcoholic with her AA sponsor on speed dial, Curtis is a short story writer, gay, pronounced “creepy” by his homophobic father, and increasingly unsettling to an audience initially keen to take his side.
The play’s humour rests on the shock of seeing an ordinary(ish) family tear each other to bits. Cancer has eaten away at Ben’s inhibitions, and his expletive laden explosions set off answering volleys of anger from a family that harbours decades worth of grudges, in a cold war turned hilariously hot. Nicholas Day finds some moments of bleak depth in between Ben’s outbursts, but Rita’s part is the fullest, and Isla Blair’s performance skillfully exploits its subtleties, needling her feckless offspring with insults that masquerade less and less convincingly as concern, before gleefully dropping their disguises entirely.
Jonathan Fensom’s design makes a similar metamorphosis. Outlining bed and furniture in boxed in, unshiftable style, it starts out feeling like a cabin fever drama trapped in an all-too-private hospital room, but a surprising shift away from classical unities, under the cover of hospital curtains, transports us into Curtis’s private loneliness. Still, even viewing a New York apartment with him, it’s hard to share his corduroy-clad, voyeuristic pose of artistic detachment. He leaves the bleak interlude just as much as a cipher, still in his mother’s shadow.
It feels slightly unfair to place, however implicitly, so much blame at the already much-maligned figure of the Jewish matriarch, but Rita’s descent from smothering cliche into wild self-absorption still has a dizzy glamour. There’s something more mean-spirited in the way that Curtis and Lisa are drawn – snivelling, vindictive and thin, they’re no more likable than their parents, but impossible to respect, either. Ultimately, the pair are humiliated, and their mother vindicated, in a climax that had the audience whooping or wincing along generational lines.
For all its foul-mouthed set-pieces, this play ends up feeling incredibly conservative; a baby boomer fantasy of wreaking sweary, humiliating revenge on one’s inadequate progeny. Written by a man who was until recently a young, struggling author himself, it has an odd taint of self-loathing – an awkward joke whose superficial note chimes with something much deeper.
Read Richard Patterson’s review of the Broadway production of The Lyons.