“The Lyons” opened April 23 on Broadway in a commercial transfer of a production seen earlier this season at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater. The following is Marilyn Stasio’s review of the Vineyard staging (Daily Variety, Oct. 10, 2011).
There are people who would walk over hot coals to see Linda Lavin tear into a meaty role. For those devoted followers, that would be reason enough to see Nicky Silver’s new play, “The Lyons,” in which Lavin plays a monstrous mother with the Medusa-like power to annihilate all life forms within range of her tongue. But aside from this narcissistic woman, etched with vitriol by Silver and immortalized by Lavin’s ruthlessly sincere portrayal of her, the secondary members of this dysfunctional household are familiar figures from the scribe’s own catalogue of grotesques.
The basic joke of Silver’s savage comedy is that the characters are given license to speak their private thoughts out loud. Freed from the customary social restraints, the Lyons family members feel free to share whatever thoughts happen to come to mind — the nastier the better.
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Ben Lyons, the family patriarch played with an understandable look of misery by Dick Latessa, is lying in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. Feeling no need to make polite small talk, he lets loose with all the bitter thoughts and foul language he once censored from family conversations.
Keeping a death watch at Ben’s bedside is his wife, Rita (Lavin), who has even fewer inhibitions about speaking her mind. Incongruously well groomed and dressed to kill (by Michael Krass, presumably with tongue in cheek), Rita is studying a copy of House Beautiful and making plans to redecorate the living room once Ben is dead and buried.
Caught up in her arctic vision of an ice-blue color scheme, she scolds Ben for his disinterest. (“Is it so much to ask? To pretend that you care?”) And when he reminds her that he’ll be dead, she’s honest about what’s really on her mind: “Is it wrong for me to want a new beginning?”
As amazing as Lavin is at playing Rita’s ferocious lust for life, she’s surprisingly touching when Rita speaks with quiet dread of the lonely life she sees ahead of her. As monsters go, she’s rather endearing.
Silver doesn’t pull off the same slight-of-hand work with the two Lyons offspring, who fuss and fight but remain one-note characters. Curtis, the gay slacker son played uneasily by Michael Esper, is creepy but not in an interesting way. And while Kate Jennings Grant plays Lisa, the alcoholic daughter, with conviction, the character is narrowly defined by her masochism.
With little plot and less action to keep them occupied, both children present themselves as sacrificial victims of their parents, who essentially softened them up for the abusive people who would later come into their lives. But since neither one of them puts up much of a fight here, it’s hard to care what happens to them once Rita is finished with them.