By PK Greenfield
Just when I thought Neal Simon wrote everything there is to be said on stage about the neurotic and troubled lives of an American Jewish family, Nicky Silver gives us yet another dark comedy showcasing a damaged family with “The Lyons” now playing at the Cort Theater on Broadway.
Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is riddled with cancer and on his deathbed in a New York City hospital. His wife, Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin), is at his bedside leafing through a design magazine and making future plans that include redecorating their home.
“I’m dying, Rita,” Ben says.
“Yes, I know,” Rita replies, flipping through magazine pages. “Try to be positive. My mother used to say ‘Dying isn’t so bad. Not when you consider the alternative.’”
And they’re off, in every sense of the word.
Ben wants “his” home left the way it is; Rita always hated it. Rita waits by his bedside tossing out sardonic comments and witty but also caustic insights regarding their abysmal and loveless marriage. She is the embodiment of a self-involved woman with her guilt dispensing and feigned sacrifice. Ben spars with her the only way a terminally ill man can, by using foul language, peppered with a lot of F-bombs. Anticipating his eminent death is just the beginning of their story. Eventually their kids show up: Lisa, an alcoholic and abused woman played by Kate Jennings Black and Curtis (Michael Esper) an angry young man with his make-believe gay partners. All together, their unhappy and unpleasant relationships become unhinged and unbelievable on occasion. Did I mention it’s a comedy?
Do not misunderstand me, you will laugh but sometimes uncomfortably so. If you are fan of stereotypes of the New York, Jewish matriarch, or get a kick out of potty humor and cantankerous old, dying men — this is for you!
Linda Lavin is most famous from the television series “Alice.” She is a Broadway veteran with roles in several award-winning productions including: “Tales of an Allergist’s Wife,” “Broadway Bound” and “New Century.” She recently performed as Hattie in the Washington D.C. staging of “Follies.”
This is her show. She gets all the best lines. When she is not in a scene, I found myself wanting her to come back. This matinee audience was crazy about her so much that she could have phoned in her performance from Katz’s Deli and receive the same ovation. Dick Latessa coughs and curses up a round of laughs as her dying husband.
While I enjoyed the actor’s performances, wrapping my brain around such tragic and loveless people with situations far more convenient than believable made my attention wander. Where Eduard Albee is a master who effortlessly blends drama with comedy and reality with delusions, Silver weaves a tale that, in my opinion, is uneven, disjointed; it’s a little too serious for farce and too juvenile for absurdity.
The family’s story culminates with this. Rita disinherits her ne’er-do-well children on the same night of her husband’s death and announces that she is running away to the tropics with her daughter’s AA sponsor. She does this in the same hospital room where her son Curtis is now recuperating after being attacked by his neighbor/actor/real estate agent whom he has stalked and lured into a vacant rental apartment. Her daughter, Lisa, takes her mother’s matchmaking encouragement and pursues the affection of a man in the last stages of lymphoma down the hall from Curtis’s room. The end.
Like a ‘70s sitcom we digest the context and understand how it reflects on human nature, but this is also why “The Lyons” has an esoteric audience and might run a little longer in a smaller venue — perhaps the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital.
The Lyons – At the Cort Theater
Written by Nicky Silver; directed by Mark Brokaw; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by David Lander; music and sound by David Van Tieghem.
With Michael Esper (Curtis Lyons), Kate Jennings Grant (Lisa Lyons), Dick Latessa (Ben Lyons), Linda Lavin (Rita Lyons) and Brenda Pressley (Nurse).
Running time: 2 hours.