The Lyons

Review by Tulis McCall
(12 Oct 2011)

For a play that has no beginning, middle or end - this one ain't bad at all.

The Lyons' patriarch is in the hospital. Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is dying of cancer. He doesn't look or act like he is dying, but we are told that he is. He is alive enough to keep up his end of a "conversation" with his wife Rita (Linda Lavin). This means that he speaks when she inhales, and that is not very often. Rita is planning to redecorate the living room and occupies her time during her deathwatch by looking through interior design magazines. When her children arrive and find out that their father is dying, so oddly buoyant is the atmosphere that we wait for Rita to say, "Well, he is dying, but not any time soon."

She doesn't, but neither does she seem very interested in Ben's death. This, we find out later on is because she hasn't loved him for a long time. She feels guilty about that, but it is the truth. Ben, on the other hand, has always loved her.

So it goes. This is what families are made of.

The progeny from this mismatch are equally odd and sad. Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) is a recovering alcoholic still in love with her ex-husband who no one likes. Curtis (Michael Esper) has a few bits of weirdness tucked up his sleeve as well. When they come together it is a conflagration, and Rita is the one holding the match.

This play is wound as tightly as its characters. It is in the telling, not the story, that Nicky Silver is engaging. So connected are these people to one another that their behavior is almost a vaudeville routine. They juggle, they spin, they twirl, they hand-off. Their story is that they are family - it is not dependant on plot points. We follow the breadcrumbs from one member to another. There is little in the way of explanation, and with the exception of one scene we never see them away from one another. That excellent scene, in which Curtis views an apartment for rent, and goes from zero to 60 in the time it takes to cross the stage, is the only glimpse into the layers of this family. Too bad - we could use more.

The weight of the production falls to Lavin who, as the matriarch with the mostess, has to play a woman who is self referential in the extreme, and still able to listen to other people talking. Rita is about to be set free of her mooring, and this makes her thrilled and terrified at the same time. The nature of this change will hurl her into a new incarnation and a new relationship with her children. Lavin has moments that are breathtaking in their vulnerability. Rita glides and stumbles with equal grace. Lavin understands that Rita is on a tight rope the width of a piano wire. Rita would rather fly than fall, and Lavin understands exactly how to maintain that most delicate balance. Lavin also has a few too many moments of blatant mugging. Hers is a facile face that can say volumes with the raise of an eyebrow, and the mugging brings us up one step too many - out of the character and into the circus.

This family is already a circus, and although this play is an odd jumble of facts and people, it nevertheless sticks together. This is due to the power of Silver's writing and the capacity of Linda Lavin to have the whole world in her hands.

Well done!

(Tulis McCall)

What the popular press said...

"Savagely sentimental portrait of familial loneliness."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Luckily, like a triple espresso, snappy dialogue, curvy plot twists and a topflight cast perk things up."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"What could have been a grim show peopled with bitter sad sacks turns out to be very funny -- and surprisingly affecting."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"An uproariously dark cartoon of a play, full of belly laughs and stark insights."
David Sheward for Back Stage

"[Linda] Lavin's portrayal of the seemingly oblivious Rita Lyons is marvelous in every microscopic detail."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"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."
Marily Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - Newsroom Jersey - Variety

Originally published on

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