Family Matters: You think your clan is dysfunctional?
Meet The Lyons.
By Lou Fancher
One good reason to like playwright Nicky Silver's The Lyons is the way it makes death and spirit-killing conversations irresistibly funny.
A better reason for praising the Aurora's Bay Area premiere of the Broadway hit about a savage, ravaged, and entirely mixed-up family is a splashdown performance from a splendid cast. Tony-nominated director Barbara Damashek stays out of the way, allowing the script to do its raucous, irreverent, dirty work.
Despite a mid-stride scene that momentarily slows the pace and one character who's mostly a cliché, The Lyons flings invectives and insights with delightful velocity. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could add up to tedious or self-indulgent comic angst. (Silver has said in interviews he pulls characters out of himself and blows them up.) Instead, family pain is a poignant, shattered mirror in which to view oneself — audiences will either note their own fracture, or marvel at the whole image still visible amid so much brokenness. Silver asks us to do both, then tickles us with zingy one-liners when we're getting too serious or self-contemplative.
The play opens on designer Eric Sinkkonen's sparse, hospital room set, where Ben Lyon, the family patriarch, is dying from cancer that is "everywhere." Like the tired sofa in his living room at home that his wife, Rita, describes as "matted down with resignation," he's worn out. Except when he flashes into profanity-laced rages aimed at anyone within spitting distance, but especially at Rita, a woman he still loves but can't understand why.
Rita is the family's dominatrix, yanking her daughter Lisa's chain by asking if she's had one of her sons tested to see if he's "retarded" and stabbing the heart of Curtis, her son, with a simple question about his weight. It's almost child's play for her to goad her homophobic husband into a tirade, especially when she points out that their son Curtis is a homosexual and therefore, just as much of a "man's man" as Ben's long-dead father, a man he idolizes.
When they all join at Ben's bedside to fling barbs about Curtis' imaginary lovers and Lisa's alcoholism and recent single-mother status, the phone rings. Ben says, "God, I hope that's death." It's one of many laughs Silver uses to keep the momentum churning; it's also a comment perfectly timed for the moment when an audience's capacity to absorb the verbal violence has reached exhaustion.
The second act opens with Curtis, a would-be short-story writer who's living on his parents' dole, being shown an empty apartment by a young, attractive male real estate agent. Although the scene's dynamic blend of lies and social mistrust swirls itself to an eventual climax when Curtis' true connection to the real estate agent is revealed, it could use a trim. Fortunately, another hospital scene — this time with Curtis recovering from spleen surgery and his father's funeral receding into the past — swiftly puts everything in order.
Or rather, disorder, because Rita turns both barrels on the family (in a standing ovation-worthy bit of theater we won't spoil by detailing), and the children are left to pick up the pieces. Sentimental, nostalgic, bittersweet to the last drop, the play ultimately reveals Silver to be a romantic, packing f-bombs and bitterness but never without love.
Jessica Bates does a fine job of adding shades to Lisa's one-note, drama-queen-of-the-family role. Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, who plays the nurse, knows exactly when to relinquish — or steal — a scene. Joe Estlack's portrayal of real estate agent Brian, in a scene that lags overall, manages to be deliberately rhythmic, escalating from mundane to livid in convincing, right-sized leaps.
As Ben, Will Marchetti laces an unsympathetic character with enough frailty to elicit forgiveness. And after seeing Nicholas Pelczar play the noble hero as Bob Cratchit in ACT's Christmas Carol or cavort victoriously as a buddy in a number of Shakespearian works at Cal Shakes, his vulnerability as the pitiful, lonely Curtis is not so much a surprise as an unexpected pleasure.
If Ellen Ratner is the battleship of the show — and she is — she's also its soul. Hypercritical, rubbed raw by a 40-year marriage to a man she never loved, lacerating her family with one-liners, Rita is an easy character to hate. Instead, Ratner has the acting chops to pull us underwater, then make us want to cheer when her character finally lifts anchor and sets sail.