Broadway review: ‘The Lyons’

Posted: April 23, 2012

Nicky Silver, the Wynnewood-born-and bred playwright whose edgy plays sometimes have seemingly nice or clueless people turning awful, had his Broadway debut Monday night with a solid, edgy play in which someone basically nice or clueless turns awful.

In the case of “The Lyons,” it’s the son of a four-person nuclear family who becomes ballistic in a desperate search for the human connection that is the play’s solid theme. But I’m making “The Lyons” sound far too serious; it’s an outrageously funny comedy — at times, uncomfortably funny because Silver exploits a man’s late-stage cancer for laughs.

Still, it works. “I’m dying!” protests the elder Lyons after his wife chastises him for being a terrible crab. He has hours or days to live. “Yes, I know,” she shoots back, in the easy know-it-all, dismissive manner that defines her. ”But try to be positive.”

While he curses at her vacuous banter from his hospital bed, she seeks his suggestions on how to redo the living room he will not see again. “You never let me buy anything nice — money, money money,” she gripes. “I love the living room,” he counters. “I love everything in it. Except the people.”

He particularly hates his son for being gay, and his divorced daughter is probably not too far down the list. As for his wife, he can’t figure out why there’s some spark of caring left in him. She herself seems content that his death will snuff it out — and perfectly fine with him being snuffed, period — but she’s dutiful in her loyalty, sitting in the hospital with him day and night ... and never shutting up.

The Lyons are clearly the walking dysfunctions we love on a stage, extremes who reflect the worst or most way-out in character types — particularly the mom, played masterfully by the superb Linda Lavin. Mrs. Lyons is the sort of Jewish matriarch who shoots arrows nonstop and can hit bulls-eyes without really trying, yet she herself is impervious to attack. Her grown kids and her husband can hiss, hurl insults or call her anything and it rolls off her well-conditioned skin. But almost any comment from them about their own lives or desires will drive her to deride.

This could all seem hurtful and tediously nasty, but “The Lyons” is blessed with Mark Brokaw’s nimble direction and a cast that mines all the dissonance as if each little imbroglio comes popping hot from a precious nugget. Lavin is the outright leader in this — everything from her New York accent to the world-weary mini-whine in her voice to the roll of her eyes says this is a woman who knows her mind and wants nothing to do with anyone else’s. The wonderful Dick Latessa is her dying husband; even though Silver gives him far too many cheap barbs based solely on high-level cursing, Latessa is a pro with the know-how to land them.

Their daughter is played with a striking self-doubt by tall, svelte Kate Jennings Grant, and their son is portrayed by Michael Esper. His role drives the author’s message, not quite clear until the end. Esper gives the character an amiable performance that turns aptly wild. Brenda Pressley and Gregory Wooddell nicely round out the action in supporting roles.

“The Lyons” works best as lashing comedy, less as a meaningful look at anything. And there’s enough funny lashing to leave an audience happily smarting.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

“The Lyons” is at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St., New York.

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