Wednesday, May 9, 2012

REVIEW: The Lyons


Review of the Saturday, May 5 evening performance at the Cort Theatre in New York City.  Starring Linda Lavin, Dick Latessa, Michael Esper, and Kate Jennings Grant.  A new play by Nicky Silver.  Directed by Mark Brokaw.  2 hours, including one intermission.  Adult language and situations.

Grade: B+

Given its characters and content - a hateful, deceitful family brought together by the impending death of its patriarch - I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed The Lyons the new play by Nicky Silver which opened recently on Broadway.  The very definition of "dark comedy," this show is a riot, with the laughs coming fast and furious.  As funny as the play is, it is also full of vitriol and just plain nastiness.  There isn't a likable person in the bunch, unless you enjoy the company of those who lie to each other as much as they lie to themselves.  That they are named "the Lyons" is no mistake as they circle each other like caged, angry cats, claws and fangs at the ready to tear apart each other at the first sign of weakness.

Meet the Lyons family: Esper, Latessa, Lavin and Jennings Grant

Mark Brokaw's direction is tight and fast-paced, with its slower moments carefully chosen.  He has guided his cast carefully, helping each to navigate the tricky line between complete nastiness and giving just enough softness so that we might find these people at least compelling enough not to leave the theatre screaming in disgust.  Both director and playwright fully understand that all the witty one-liners and biting arguments only really work if you can find some reason to be invested in the lives of these characters, even for a brief two hour stay.  Still, there are a couple of times when the change in tone is so abrupt it is jarring, and nothing in act one really prepares you for act two.  While those abrupt twists and turns are realistic in living your own life, it makes for some discomfort as you sit there witnessing it.  That said, it is all worth it in the end.  The top-notch acting makes it all worthwhile.

Mr. Lyons and the nurse: Latessa and Pressley

None of the characters are what they seem to be on the surface, which is all they allow each other to see.  And each actor plays that duplicity to perfection, including the two supporting characters.  Brenda Pressley plays a no nonsense nurse, whose years attending to the ill has hardened her to the point that she has no bedside manner left.  She is sassy and yet, when she lets her guard down finally, you can see what she once was: a compassionate caregiver.  In a small but pivotal role as a real estate agent, Gregory Woodell has a relatively complex character to portray in a brief scene in act two.  His character's duplicity is multifaceted: a real estate agent who is really an actor who plays straight for professional reasons, and is unwittingly part of a deep secret.  That secret, revealed in a pretty surprising way, results in an even more surprising turning point for one of the Lyons, and a delicious "a ha" moment for the audience.  Woodell plays it all smoothly and with brutish physicality.

"Have I got an apartment for you!"
Esper and Woodell

"Dysfunctional" doesn't really even come close to describing just what a hot, pardon the expression, fucked up mess that the Lyons family is.  All four have enough baggage and back-story that any one would be enough for a whole play.  I'm not sure I could take it.  As it is, we find that the family really has no business being together.  No one is honest; all of them hold secrets - deep dark ones, any one of which would destroy most families.  But the Lyons feed off of each other in a dangerous, four-way co-dependency that makes for delicious theatre, but rather rotten real life.  The impetus for their gathering together is that the father is near death - a fact withheld from both adult children.

Brother and Sister Lyons: Jennings Grant and Esper

Kate Jennings Grant is the long suffering alcoholic daughter whose guilt has turned her into a lying mess of nerves, ready at the slightest provocation to unleash waves of self-pity and anger at everyone but herself.  That Ms. Grant lets us see that her anger is heavily selfish without ever saying it, is a credit to the internal investment she has given to her portrayal.  And that the character is a crazy mess of both of her parents makes the character all the more interesting.  The same can be said of the son, brilliantly played to the emotional hilt by Michael Esper.  His take on the son, gay and shunned by the father, is that the character is a complex mix of self-delusion, self-pity and anger (see the trend?), and a pathological need for validation.  The son actually goes through the most in the course of the play - confronting his father and offering forgiveness, a shocking revelation about his personal life, and a personal health crisis are but three things.  And Esper plays each moment brilliantly.  It is a shame that his efforts have not resulted in awards recognition.  His performance is one I won't forget.  Equally unforgettable, but for entirely different reasons, is Dick Latessa as the father of the Lyons den.  Pale and gaunt, Latessa holds court from his death bed with a filthy mouth - his impending death seems to be license to say EXACTLY what he feels - and his timing is impeccable.  And like the rest of the company, it is the finding the humanity in all of the ugliness that shows the real skill of this accomplished actor.

Mr. and Mrs. Lyons: Lavin and Latessa

I was dying to see what it was that led Linda Lavin to give up two sure chances to create a role on Broadway to create a new character off-Broadway.  As it turns out, both of those roles are Tony nominated, too.  But the gamble might have paid off, anyway.  The play she did chose, this one, went to Broadway and she earned a Tony nomination in the process.  This is a juicy, epic role, rare these days for actresses "of a certain age," and one that Ms. Lavin has taken to heart, body and soul.  Critics have hailed her performance as brilliant, a masterpiece, and the pinnacle of her career.  Both the award nominations and critical adoration are, I'm glad to say, completely warranted.  This is a difficult role, as the woman she plays is vicious, mean and cruelly honest in the end.  And yet, you must feel drawn to her - she is both catalyst and conclusion - even if you don't sympathize with her.  Up until the end of the play, she is no more or less guilty, self-pitying or angry than the rest of the family.  Up until the end of the play, her cutting wit and harsh assessment of others will have you rolling in the aisles.  Sure, she's not a likable woman, but you can understand her.  She suffers like all wives and mothers do.

And then, there is the end of the play.  Her shocking revelation and exit speech - and I mean your-jaw-hits-the-floor-and-you-can't-breathe-or-even-move shocking - garnered Lavin an unparalleled collective gasp, and finally, amazed exit applause the night I attended.  That moment is a humdinger and one I won't likely forget in years.  In lesser hands, the role of Mrs. Lyons would grate on the most patient of people.  But Ms. Lavin, who provides a master class here on voice modulation, pregnant pauses, meaningful glances and double-takes, is completely in control, carefully manipulating us into paying attention, understanding her side, and maybe even sympathizing with her.  Whether you like Mrs. Lyons or not is a matter of taste.  But you can't help but love a tour-de-force performance by one hell of an actress.

At its heart, The Lyons is a cautionary tale about families, secrets and trust.  You'll probably leave the theatre with your funny bone sated.  And you'll probably leave feeling a bit perplexed.  After all, what you've just seen is a shocking display by a group of people you would hate in real life.  I know I was glad to have met the Lyons family.  Now I know what to watch out for and what kind of people to avoid.  The next morning, I called BOTH of my parents, told them I loved them, and we talked for nearly an hour.  I felt cleansed.

(Production photos by Carol Rosegg)

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