The Lyons—Unexpected Laughter


Heads up national theater schools! It’s about time curriculums included a course on Linda Lavin Comedy. New York rhythms, impeccable timing, arched intonation, nuanced, often deadpan reactions, and priceless, specific gestures whose methodology might be passed on to a new generation of thespians. Young actors could write theses on the actress’s ability to make it seem as if idiosyncratic characters walked off the street as they appear on stage. No one exemplifies these skills more organically than Lavin whose otherwise varied career spikes each time a theater fills with her power to evoke unwitting laughter.

Playwright Nicky Silver has a way with the weird, dark, and dysfunctional, which is to say he forces us to find humor and pathos in the most repellent situations among people one would ordinarily avoid like the plague. The Lyons family exists somewhere between the gothic denizens of Edward Gorey tales and contemporized Greek tragedy.

Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin) sits by her husband Ben’s (Dick Latessa) hospital deathbed with the gravity of waiting for a manicure. Absently paging through a copy of House Beautiful, she chatters on about redoing their living room. “What would you think about a Marrakech theme—of course you won’t be there to enjoy it…the sofa was cream; now it’s just a washed out shade of dashed hopes…” “What the fuck are you talking about?!” he shouts suddenly opening his eyes. “I’m dying, Rita!” “I know, “she retorts, “but try to be positive. You can participate or you can complain.” Their relationship in a nutshell.

The grown Lyon’s progeny have been called at the last minute ostensibly in order not to “bother” them, but more likely because neither parent can abide either child. Nor do the siblings feel anything but animosity towards one another. Daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), separated from a destructive marital relationship about whose loss she wails, is an oblivious mother and active alcoholic. Son Curtis (Michael Esper) is a sociopathic, gay man who writes short stories with his mother’s support. Both angry, selfish, whining characters are clearly their parent’s children. Ben’s love is absent. Rita’s is wrapped in thorns. When the patriarch—such as he is—dies, surviving family members are affected in surprising and radical fashions.

One and a half of the play’s three scenes revolves around the meticulously drawn Rita. These work best. This is not to say a raw and painful episode unmasking Curtis is not effective, but rather that it feels like it comes from another (interesting) play. We lurch to and from its appearance. Lisa doesn’t get equal time and when Rita drops the final bomb, it goes off in Curtis’s shadow. Still, the writing is terrific, the momentum nonstop, the acting excellent, and first act laughter an echoing pleasure.

Linda Lavin (Rita Lyons) is superb. See above. Worth watching in anything, she excels as the formidable, compellingly watchable Rita.

Dick Latessa (Ben Lyons) is a perfect foil for the strength and confidence of Lavin’s acting. His timing is delicious, his inflection dry as a good martini, his facial expressions hysterical. Ben’s single moment of emotional warmth is made entirely credible.

Kate Jennings Grant (Lisa Lyons) offers direct, unfussy characterization that brings her role to repugnant life. We see her mind react before she moves. Focus is so complete Lisa (appropriately) vibrates.

Michael Esper (Curtis Lyons) embodies Silver’s shattering portrait of a trapped and wounded animal. He communicates viscerally nailing every aspect of the demanding, emotionally wide ranging role. A powerful performance.

Both Brenda Pressley (Nurse) and Gregory Wooddell (Brian) are completely believable in smaller parts.

Director Mark Brokaw has equal skill with comedy and drama. His comprehension of the play’s hellish underscoring informs every moment. Characters are rigorously defined. Pacing is pitch perfect. The stage is well used.

Photo Credit Carol Rosegg

The Lyons by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Starring Linda Lavin
With Dick Latessa, Michael Esper, Kate Jennings Grant,
Brenda Pressley, Gregory Wooddell
Cort Theater
138 West 48th Street

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