The Lyons

I love The Lyons.

Now that may seem surprising, for this new play by Nicky Silver is not particularly a lovable play. (In fact, in some respects, it's a little bit creepy.) But unlike every other new play I've seen on Broadway this season (indeed, in many a season), The Lyons isn't content to just accept, reinforce, and/or report the status quo. No, this is a play meant to make you feel uncomfortable even as you howl with laughter at its outrageous goings-on; it's a play meant to provide a sharp jolt that might cause you to reconsider what you thought you knew about American families and, more generally, America itself. It's a play that's unconventional in its structure and a little bit subversive in its message; the kind of play they don't generally produce on Broadway nowadays.

So now you know why I love it.

I don't really want to talk too much about what actually happens in The Lyons: I certainly don't want to give away the jokes, which are plentiful and often deeply funny, and I also don't want to give you any clues about the unexpected stuff that Silver springs on us. I think I can give you a bare-bones synopsis: In a hospital room, Ben Lyons lies dying of cancer while his wife, Rita, waits for the end to come...by leafing through an issue of House Beautiful, planning how she will redecorate the living room once its hers and hers alone. Dutifully visiting their father are daughter Lisa, who is proudly five years sober and struggling to raise two boys as a single mother, and son Curtis, who is gay and estranged from the father who dislikes him and the mother who seems ready to smother him. Yes, the Lyons are a nuclear family turned dismayingly dysfunctional: they're the poster family for dysfunctional, in fact; monumentally archetypal in their screwed-up-ness.

Rita, played brilliantly and with magnificent physicality by Linda Lavin, is the most vivid of the Lyons, seemingly an amalgamation of all the monstrous mothers from hell we've become so accustomed to in American drama from August: Osage County to Lost in Yonkers and back again. Lavin's work is wrought on such a grand scale that she may actually throw off the balance of the play, but don't let that stop you from seeing this intelligent, beautifully calibrated depiction of massive ego and perhaps even more massive disappointment.

Ben, resigned to his fate, is splendidly inhabited by Dick Latessa, who, like Lavin, is pretty much nonpareil on stage these days. Latessa, restricted to a hospital bed for most of his stage time, still steals focus plenty with his split-second timing and his hangdog, deadpan persona.

As the younger Lyons, Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper are very much in the shadow of these old pros, which is very much part of the point. Nevertheless, they deliver fine performances, with the former luxuriating in Lisa's multiple psychoses and the latter constantly keeping us off-balance while we try to decide if Curtis is a nice person or not.

Nice, ultimately, doesn't really matter, though; these characters are in a place where nice can't cut it. Nor can apathy, or anomie, or assigning (or assuming) blame, or anything remotely passive. The Lyons is an active theatre experience—you absolutely need to keep up!—about, among other things, being actively in command of your own life. It occurs to me, in this hyper-connected age when no one actually connects anymore, that Silver is being as political here as Albee was when he wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Miller was when he wrote Death of a Salesman. We are, after all, a nation of families.

The play has two other cast members—Brenda Pressley, who is terrific as a nurse, and Gregory Wooddell, who plays a real estate agent named Brian. The set by Allen Moyer is specific and naturalistic and very effective; ditto Michael Krass's costumes. David Lander's lighting and Mark Brokaw's direction are so organic that you notice neither, which I mean as the highest praise.

The Lyons is not comfort food, nor is it a theatrical meal that feels hearty and good for you but, once an hour has passed, reveals itself to be devoid of nutritious content. Instead, The Lyons is that rare treat, an authentic dramatic feast, one that will reward an open-minded and eager audience richly.