Pity Ben Lyons. He lies dying in a hospital bed and wants some peace and quiet in his final days – respect, mostly – but is surrounded by his feckless family.
There's his son, a failed short story writer who depends on his parents' support and has a stable of imaginary friends. There is his needy daughter, a recovering drunk with self-esteem problems who can't quite break free of her ex-husband.
And then there's his wife of 40 years, who is already exploring patterns to redo the living room after Ben has died. Flipping through House Beautiful magazine beside his bed, she throws out options: French provincial? Chinese modern? Early American?
"Is it too much to want a fresh start?" she asks when he objects. "Is it too much to hope for a clean palate?"
No wonder that when the phone rings, Ben Lyons wonders aloud: "God, I hope it's death."
Nicky Silver's terrific play "The Lyons," which opened Monday on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, is filled with moments like those – moments when you can't stop laughing even though the circumstances indicate you really shouldn't.
The first-rate cast – Linda Lavin, Dick Latessa, Michael Esper, Kate Jennings Grant, Brenda Pressley and Gregory Wooddell – has made the trip north after the production made its debut last fall off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre. Mark Brokaw returns as the director, and the play has been trimmed into a tighter, harder little gem.
It's a play about family dysfunction and regret, but also about breaking out of our ruts. Silver's humor is mordant, dark and rich. He's a writer who knows all too well the unsaid hurt that can infect families.
Lavin is an absolute wonder to behold as Rita Lyons, a nag of a mother with a collection of firm beliefs and eye rolls, a matriarch who is both suffocating and keeping everyone at arm's length.
She didn't tell her kids that their father was dying for several weeks because she was busy – at a backgammon tournament. She nudges her daughter to meet someone new – including a man dying of lymphoma, commenting in the most lukewarm way possible, "You're perfectly nice looking." One of her grandsons, she wonders aloud, seems to be "just a little bit retarded."
At one point she appears with a box of candy. When her daughter wonders where she got it while at a hospital, she replies: "A little girl down the hall just died. And I got Jordan almonds!"
Latessa adds so much to his role, described simply as a "curmudgeon" in the script. Latessa makes you feel this man's frustration, fear, disappointment and also his love. It is his character's imminent death that shakes up his family.
Of course, he can't get too maudlin – not with Rita around. When he wonders whether he'll end up in hell, she offers: "Well, even if there is a hell, I can't believe you're going. I mean it's a little grandiose of you, don't you think?"
Esper plays the son as a man unraveling, a smugness at the beginning wiped away following a face-off with a real estate broker (Wooddell) in Act 2. He is a man-child, full of hurts and a thin skin, and ends up in the same hospital as his father.
Grant's part has been trimmed with the loss of a monologue, but she is still delightfully wistful, seemingly always befuddled. Both siblings end up in better places at the end, and watching them swallow their disappointments and get on with their lives is a pleasure. Brenda Pressley plays a no-nonsense nurse whom Silver has thankfully resisted making into an angel of mercy.
Nothing beats Rita's final speech, and Lavin rips into it with gusto.
"I am rootless in the world," she says. "I'm still alive and I have to find a way to try to feel something!" You can tell it was a major reason this busy actress chose to commit to this play instead of other Broadway-bound options.
But the real star is Silver's play, a wonderful little riff on family dysfunction. Or, as Rita says while flipping through pictures of beautiful living rooms, "I suppose you never really know what people are like, behind closed doors."
Death looms large in Nicky Silver’s Broadway play, “The Lyons,” a caustic and canny comedy about family dysfunction packed with surprises that are alternately hilarious, tragic and absurd.
Emerging just as big as the Grim Reaper in her ferociously funny and constantly compelling star turn is Linda Lavin, who plays a wife (and soon-to-be-widow) and mother whose bark and bite can wreak havoc. And has.
The Tony-winning actress is in impeccable company in this production dexterously directed by Mark Brokaw. It was seen last fall at the Vineyard Theatre and arrives at the Cort Theatre with a snugger running time (a mini-scene in the second half has been cut) and the same cast. Everyone is at the top of their game.
Same goes for the author. Silver has often blended laughs and anguish, from “The Food Chain,” about a troubled poet, to “Beautiful Child,” a taboo love story.
His ideas and dialogue are sharper than ever in “The Lyons,” a scathing commentary about families and how destructive they can be. Sometimes, he suggests, you’re better off without your blood relatives. You’ve got to know when to fold ’em.
For Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa), that’s a non-issue. Ravaged by cancer, he’s dying in a hospital, while his wife of 40 years, Rita (Lavin), faces the future and how she’s going to redo her home and life. She despises both. And her husband. When Ben expresses fears about hell, Rita zings, “Jews don’t believe in hell. And who are you to get into Hell? What did you ever do?”
What indeed? Their grown children are certainly stunted in terms of major accomplishments. Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) is a divorced alcoholic up to her eyeballs in denial.
Curtis (Michael Esper) is a fiction writer living off of Mom’s allowance and faded into a secret sicko fantasy world. That leads him to a disturbing encounter with real estate agent (Gregory Wooddell) and an RN played by Brenda Pressley, who lends a glimmer of optimism amid the corrosive doings.
Meantime, Lavin nurses every biting barb, telling gesture and unprintable expletive. Silver has given her some of the best and bitchiest lines, but Lavin’s special gift is finding nuance not even in the script.
As a mother from hell and, in the end, of reinvention, Lavin is to die for. Miss her and weep.
Ben may be in the throes of terminal cancer, but his wife, Rita, is determined to know what he thinks about redoing their living room.
“I’m dying,” he groans.
“Yes, I know,” she replies. “Try to be positive.”
Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons” — which opened on Broadway last night after a hit run at the Vineyard — is packed with such sweet nothings. When you hear them delivered by pros like Dick Latessa and Linda Lavin, it’s comedy nirvana.
Lavin is particularly fabulous in a juicy role from which she squeezes every drop. It’s never less than a treat to watch this expert in action, starting with the way Rita fires off put-downs while idly flipping through a magazine.
Ben himself shows no sign of mellowing, spitting out profanities to which his wife responds with cool contempt. You get the feeling this has been going on for a while, and only death could end it.
The couple’s grown children, Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant, overdoing it a bit) and Curtis (Michael Esper, delightfully uptight), are similarly hopeless.
She’s a high-strung recovering alcoholic who’s never been happy — her one meaningful memory turns out to be from “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
He’s a tweedy, needy writer full of resentment. “I refuse to relive the Hindenburg of my childhood,” he spits out after Rita asks if he’d like to move back with her.
While Ben hates his son’s homosexuality, Rita dislikes both children equally.
Silver (“Pterodactyls,” “Raised in Captivity”) doesn’t break new ground, but his vehicle is satisfyingly mean and funny, and director Mark Brokaw steers it adroitly.
The playwright’s also smart enough to know that a bitchfest only goes so far.
The show takes a left turn in the second half, when we discover the full extent of Curtis’ misery, but also Rita’s obstinate willpower. She finally takes charge after decades stuck with an obnoxious husband and selfish, callous offspring, and Lavin does her full justice.
This makes the story’s twists less surprising — the show reads broader at the Cort than it did off-Broadway — but at least Rita’s gained in complexity. She’s still a controlling handful, but also reveals early flashes of unhappiness, making her later decisions easier to understand.
When Rita finally tells her kids what’s what, you want to stand up and cheer — for the character, and for the brilliant actress bringing her to life.
Oh, they’re just awful people, those Lyons. They’re whiny, denigrating, vicious, self-centered, recriminatory — the sort of blood kin who can’t cling to one another without drawing blood. And they’re a family that you will really, really want to spend time with. Honestly. And not just for (you should excuse the expression) the pleasure of their company.
Sure, from a distance the title characters of “The Lyons,” the Nicky Silver play that opened on Monday night at the Cort Theater in a production starring the fabulous Linda Lavin, are hilarious as they kick the ego out of one another. But look at them close — no, closer — and you’re likely to find an intimate mirror of your own frightened self.
Welcome to Broadway at last, Mr. Silver. And might I add that that this cozy-but-nasty family portrait is just the right vehicle to bring you here?
A prolific creator of dark and defiantly eccentric comedies since the early 1990s (“Raised in Captivity,” “The Food Chain”), Mr. Silver has had productions mounted all over Manhattan, with varying success. But while he contributed to the book of the unfortunate 2002 revival of “The Boys From Syracuse,” his own plays seemed a little too special (read: creepy) for commercial Broadway.
Yet if you stood in the Cort Theater lobby and listened to the laughter that rises in close and regular waves, you could easily pretend that the time was the 1960s, and that you had just dropped in on the latest hit by Neil Simon, directed by Mike Nichols. That’s because the laughter you hear there is cadenced, as if in some sort of call-and-response ritual. It’s the sound of New Yorkers reveling in target-hitting one-liners fired in high exasperation by urban neurotics.
That pretty much describes the comic market that Mr. Simon had cornered for decades, with a type of fast-quipping, point-scoring humor that has since been taken over mostly by television. “The Lyons,” directed with a pulsing comic rhythm by Mark Brokaw, draws laughs with the same reliability as, say, “The Odd Couple.”
But with “The Lyons,” there’s often a gasp within the chuckle. Mr. Silver’s characters crack wise not out of loving, familiar irritation but from a forlorn awareness that there’s no lonelier place to be than in the bosom of your own family, even — no, especially — in times of crisis. A shade of existential emptiness and anger hangs over even the jolliest exchange in this play, the first act of which is set in a hospital room, where Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is ungraciously dying of cancer, while Rita (Ms. Lavin), his wife, looks forward to life in his absence.
Given that scenario, you might be tempted to think of Mr. Silver as the strange progeny of a coupling between Mr. Simon and Edward Albee. Ooh, not a pretty image. Let’s scratch that. Anyway, such a genealogy doesn’t leave room for Mother, who is usually the matrix of any Silver drama and indisputably is here. And though she’s been played in the past by formidable actresses like Kelly Bishop, Betty Buckley and Jean Smart, the Silver matriarch has never been as fully embodied as she is by Ms. Lavin.
In many ways Rita is a classic of the New York stage: the suffocating, belittling Jewish mother, whose love comes covered in esteem-puncturing quills. But Rita has a surprise or two in her. And by the end, you may wonder if love even enters the equation.
Seated at the deathbed of her rancorous, obscenity-spewing husband (played with wonderful, helpless dudgeon by Mr. Latessa), Rita ladles out sweet-and-sour reassurance. (Ms. Lavin seems to savor every flavor in that mix as she speaks.) “I’m dying, Rita,” Ben says.
Rita answers: “I know, Dear. Try to look on the positive side.”
Enter the children, God bless them. Those would be Curtis (Michael Esper) and Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), bearing potted plants and heaping doses of blame for the parents they believe destroyed them. These siblings have a case, for sure, since neither the gay, fantasy-spinning Curtis nor the divorced, alcoholic Lisa seems capable of sustaining any kind of healthy relationship. Bickering, sniping and betraying each other’s secrets, Curtis and Lisa are glowering evidence that a death in the family doesn’t automatically bring out the best in people.
It does, however, bring out the best in Mr. Silver. Without sacrificing his mordant wit or bleak worldview, this distinctive dramatist shows a new maturity and empathy in “The Lyons,” especially as it’s been revised for Broadway. The production is tighter, funnier and sadder than it was when I saw it downtown at the Vineyard Theater last fall.
At that time the consensus was that the second act was wobblier than the first. Besides, it had less of Ms. Lavin, whose blithely rendered bitterness seemed the best reason to see the show. But with a few cuts (including a standard-issue Alcoholics Anonymous testimony from Lisa) and tweaks, the second half now equals the first.
In fact, the play delivers a couple of late sucker punches that, while impressive enough in the original version, leave you reeling here. And while Ms. Lavin continues to reign supreme, the cast feels more balanced than it did before. Ms. Grant has securely found her feet as the haplessly competitive Lisa.
And as Curtis, the excellent Mr. Esper (“American Idiot”) now shares the play’s center with Ms. Lavin. Awkward, brainy, ingratiating, hostile and emotionally autistic, Curtis is clearly the product of Ben and Rita’s nature and nurture. (The ambivalent mother-son dynamic between Rita and Curtis feels both clearer and more complex.)
The two second-act scenes in which Curtis self-sabotagingly tries to make contact with others (characters played trenchantly by Gregory Wooddell and Brenda Pressley) are as gripping as Rita’s unexpected 11 o’clock aria of a monologue.
Incidentally, though “The Lyons” begins with Rita’s summoning lush visions of how she might redecorate her living room once Ben is dead, Allen Moyer’s sets are effectively sterile white boxes: a hospital room, an empty apartment. In other words, don’t expect the comforts of home in “The Lyons.”
Home, for Mr. Silver, is only a myth we invent to reassure and torture ourselves. “The Lyons,” which is ultimately not without an endearing gleam of hope, suggests that once you accept that chilly reality, you just might be able to make a life for yourself.
When "The Lyons" opened at the tiny Vineyard Theatre in the fall, the mystery of Linda Lavin was finally solved.
Why, the theater community had been asking for months, did this accomplished and scene-stealing star decide to go Off-Broadway in an unproven piece instead of transferring to Broadway with the acclaimed "Other Desert Cities" or moving from Washington to Broadway with the cast of "Follies"?
But the moment Lavin launched into the opening monologue in Nicky Silver's dark comedy, we got it. With Rita Lyons, the playwright with the awesome respect for hysteria -- especially female -- had created a character hungry for all the layers of emotional terrorism this actress commands.
I remember marveling at the infinite variety of contempt, self-pity and fear she expressed just by pursing her lips. Much has been written about Lavin's voice, a sound that manages to be grating and comforting at the same time. But who knew how much she could say by simply shutting her mouth?
So here she is now on Broadway with her Rita, which also happens to be Silver's long-delayed Broadway debut. And I wish I could say the transfer makes as much sense as her original decision to hook her star to this play.
"The Lyons" never was the most consistently inspired of Silver's family horror-story comedies. In the big theater, it feels thin. Lavin is exaggerating the sighs to fill the room, and I miss the devastating detail of the intimacy.
Still, there is much to enjoy in Silver's deep, dark whirlpool of hairpin mood swings, loopy litanies, despair and unexpected tenderness.
In three brief scenes (a fourth has wisely been cut), director Mark Brokaw shows us how, as Rita says early on, "you never know what's going on behind closed doors." Rita is a hyper-articulate, bitter and upwardly striving middle-class woman who overdresses every day for her husband's hospital deathwatch. Browsing a home-furnishing magazine for remodeling tips for impending widowhood, she launches into just the first of many stream-of-consciousness soliloquies of blunt cruelty and unbridled bad taste.
She is the motormouth wife of the cancer-ridden and nasty Ben (the always wonderful, underutilized Dick Latessa). She is also the disappointed mother of a barely recovering alcoholic (a shrill Kate Jennings Grant) and a gay short-story writer (Michael Esper), who has a wildly unpredictable scene with a Ken doll of a real estate agent (Gregory Wooddell).
But what felt like a satire of the sitcom in the small theater feels too much like a sitcom now.
There are people who would walk over hot coals to see Linda Lavin tear into a meaty role. For those devoted followers, that would be reason enough to see Nicky Silver's new play, "The Lyons," in which Lavin plays a monstrous mother with the Medusa-like power to annihilate all life forms within range of her tongue. But aside from this narcissistic woman, etched with vitriol by Silver and immortalized by Lavin's ruthlessly sincere portrayal of her, the secondary members of this dysfunctional household are familiar figures from the scribe's own catalogue of grotesques.
The basic joke of Silver's savage comedy is that the characters are given license to speak their private thoughts out loud. Freed from the customary social restraints, the Lyons family members feel free to share whatever thoughts happen to come to mind -- the nastier the better.
Ben Lyons, the family patriarch played with an understandable look of misery by Dick Latessa, is lying in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. Feeling no need to make polite small talk, he lets loose with all the bitter thoughts and foul language he once censored from family conversations.
Keeping a death watch at Ben's bedside is his wife, Rita (Lavin), who has even fewer inhibitions about speaking her mind. Incongruously well groomed and dressed to kill (by Michael Krass, presumably with tongue in cheek), Rita is studying a copy of House Beautiful and making plans to redecorate the living room once Ben is dead and buried.
Caught up in her arctic vision of an ice-blue color scheme, she scolds Ben for his disinterest. ("Is it so much to ask? To pretend that you care?") And when he reminds her that he'll be dead, she's honest about what's really on her mind: "Is it wrong for me to want a new beginning?"
As amazing as Lavin is at playing Rita's ferocious lust for life, she's surprisingly touching when Rita speaks with quiet dread of the lonely life she sees ahead of her. As monsters go, she's rather endearing.
Silver doesn't pull off the same slight-of-hand work with the two Lyons offspring, who fuss and fight but remain one-note characters. Curtis, the gay slacker son played uneasily by Michael Esper, is creepy but not in an interesting way. And while Kate Jennings Grant plays Lisa, the alcoholic daughter, with conviction, the character is narrowly defined by her masochism.
With little plot and less action to keep them occupied, both children present themselves as sacrificial victims of their parents, who essentially softened them up for the abusive people who would later come into their lives. But since neither one of them puts up much of a fight here, it's hard to care what happens to them once Rita is finished with them.