Here’s what’s happening at the beginning of The Lyons, a new comedy playing at the Vineyard Theater: Ben (Dick Latessa) lies in a hospital bed, his liver cancer having spread all over his body, waiting out the remaining hours of his life. His wife Rita (Linda Lavin) is sitting in the chair next to him, preoccupied with how she’ll change the decor of their living room once he’s gone.
Their two adult children, Curtis (Michael Esper) and Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), neither of whom has seen the other in years, have unwittingly come to pay their last respects. Before visiting hours are over, accusations will be flung about one’s alcoholism and the other’s sanity; revelations will be made, in bald terms, about which child has disappointed which parent the most; and Ben will have dropped so many F-bombs, aimed at everyone in the room and beyond, that you wonder if he’s been storing them under a mattress for the moment of his death.
There’s a shorter way to say all of this: The Lyons is a play written by Nicky Silver. It is also a startling and spectacular one, anchored by two iridescent performances – one from Lavin, the other from Esper – and steered by the confident direction of Mark Brokaw. And it’s something of a comeback for a talented writer whose angry, absurdist formula has produced decidedly mixed results in recent years.
Silver is best known for his twin portraits of domestic unease from the mid-nineties, Pterodactyls (which, among other things, heralded the New York arrival of Hope Davis in a featured role) and the much richer Raised in Captivity. Though quite different, both centered around a young, anarchic gay man forced to deal with the ravages of AIDS and an inhospitable family. There was, seemingly, an acidic message at the core of Silver’s early work: no matter how long you live, or how far you travel, your parents have probably destroyed you for good.
There’s plenty of acid in The Lyons too. But it seems that in Silver’s universe, the moral burden has shifted, at least a little. Can you blame Rita, after all, when she concludes that Curtis and Lisa are both “sad and terrible?” At what point do a mother’s failures stop justifying the mistakes of her children? And at what point must those children decide for themselves how to spend the rest of their lives?
For her part, Lavin gives the kind of weary and wise performance that seems the exclusive entitlement of performers who, like her, belong in the pantheon of American theater (so does Latessa, but his stage time and material is more limited here.) Her legs crossed, her hair sweeping to and fro, her eyes bulging when confronted by a statement with which she does not agree (and that’s nearly everything), Lavin spends much of the first act in a chair, thumbing through a magazine, dispensing a one-liner or a cheerily brutal truth with each flip of the page. She is, after all, the family’s sole fountain of common sense, if only everyone would just settle down and listen.
Esper, meanwhile, brings a touching, full-bodied ambivalence to Curtis that keeps us on his side even when we probably shouldn’t be. His interlude with Brian (Gregory Wooddell), a real estate agent, provides the story’s most genuine surprise, and is one of the more expertly rendered portraits of controlled obsession you’re likely to see on a stage.
If there is a weak link in this ensemble (rounded out by an earthy Brenda Pressley, as the nurse), it is Grant’s heavily mannered turn as the troubled Lisa. To be fair, she has the play’s most thankless role, and her act two soliloquy has been written with a theatrical weightiness that would probably never quite roll off the human tongue. But in a play that relies so heavily on the theme of human connection, her lack of an attempt at three dimensions is a disappointment. It’s partly that her efforts are so outmatched by Lavin, who has yet to meet a turn of phrase she can’t finesse into a zesty zinger or a one-two punch. (Only the greenest of theatergoers would think that sustained applause is anything but mandatory when, after a fiery monologue late in act two, Rita makes her final exit.)
Ultimately, The Lyons is a riff on the same macabre melody we’ve heard before from Silver: family is corrupt; love is abusive or awful or imaginary; dying is no more absurd than living. But when visiting hours are up and the curtain comes down, it seems the Lyons (or, at least, Rita and Curtis) just might have their sights set on something else, and in the world of Silver, that something has never looked quite so much like happiness.