A half century ago, Edward Albee wrote a play, ALL OVER, in which a family gathers around the deathbed of the patriarch. As usual for Albee, what emerges is anything but a portrait of a loving family unit. The widow may sit by her husband's deathbed, but she is waiting for him to die, not grieving over her imminent loss. I thought about ALL OVER as I watched Nicky Silver's often hilarious, sometimes disturbing play, THE LYONS. Albee's patriarch is silent, but Silver's is foul-mouthed, bitter and brutally candid. He tells his gay son that in the parade of disappointments that has been his life, his son is the Grand Marshall. You can't blame Ben Lyons for being angry. His son is incapable of a real relationships and is a stalker. His daughter is a recovering (sometimes) alcoholic who was married to a man who beat her. And his wife, Rita, who seems to talk nonstop, is the latest in the gallery of monstrous Jewish wives/mothers. When the curtain rises, Rita is reading HOUSE BEAUTIFUL magazine and trying to decide how to redecorate her home when her husband dies. She is trying to play the dutiful wife, but clearly feels nothing positive about her husband or her children. Alternately trying to play the role of devoted wife and mother, and saying vicious things to husband and children, Rita is clearly responsible for the fact that her children have such low self-esteem. She may be right at the end when she tells them that they're too old to blame her, but she has done her damage. So has her husband, who clearly doesn't like his children very much.
The first act of THE LYONS (a play short enough to be done without an intermission though this production, for some reason, has one) is blisteringly funny. The focus is on Rita and Ben Brilliantly played by Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa. Their children are superbly acted (Michael Esper and Kate Jennings Grant), but it is Lavin's name over the title and she has the role of a lifetime. Her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. No one in the family censors their true feelings, but Lavin's Rita shows even more through her looks of disdain and condescension.
The second act begins with a scene without Lavin and Silver turns his focus onto the son, Curtis, as he has meeting with good-looking young actor-turned-real-estate-salesman. Does Curtis, an unsuccessful short story writer, really want to buy this leaky apartment with a view of an airshaft? During the scene he alternates flirtation and hostility toward the salesman who has his own problems with his sexuality and relationships. It's a challenging scene to perform and Esper is brilliant in it, But up to this point THE LYONS has been a funny play with Linda Lavin. The audience didn't seem to know what to make of this scene and the change of focus and tone. Lavin is back in the final scene, but the focus remains on Curtis, the major collateral damage of the Lyons's marriage.
One can't help but enjoy such a fine cast and admire Silver's take on the American family and the monster mother. Perhaps I wouldn't have been so bothered by the play's change of focus in Act II if this 100 minute play had been performed without an intermission. Silver's principal topic throughout his career has been dysfunctional, self-destructive gay men. I wasn't surprised that Curtis would become co important as the play progressed.
Don't go to THE LYONS expecting nice, sympathetic characters. You wouldn't want to live next-door to these totally self-absorbed people. They are, however, great fun to watch, particularly as performed by this group of actors.
What is happening to the non-musical on Broadway. On a Saturday night, the Cort Theatre wasn't even half full for a critically acclaimed play. I understand the much lauded and prize-winning CLYBOURNE PARK isn't doing well. Only the star-studded revivals seem to be doing any business. Are audiences so bound up in brand name recognition that they won't give a new play a chance? Or are ticket prices so high that people will only be satisfied with big stars or a musical? Sad.
THE LYONS by Nicky Silver. Cort Theatre, New York City. May 5, 2012