And yet another family gathers on the current American stage either at the bedside of a dying relative or at their home mourning for a lost member. In Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, a mother, a son, and a daughter enter the hospital room of their dying, cranky, even bitter-about-his-now-spent-life husband and father. This is the family from hell where no paired relationship among them is without many barbs and arrows flung on a continual basis. Dante’s hell is within this room; death for the father in fact may be the kind of escape they all are seeking in their own ways. But amid all the cursing, revelations of deep and dark secrets, and missed attempts to reconcile past and current hurts among this terrible tribe is a play full of hilarity and laced with guffaw-producing one-liners.
The master of delivering these zingers is the matriarch Rita, so skillfully played by Ellen Ratner. (This is the same role for which Linda Lavin was Tony-nominated in 2014 for Best Actress in a Play.) Ms. Ratner does not leave a stone unturned as she employs every hand movement, fling of the head and hair, piercing look, dance-like movement, and voice intonation to command the stage and the moment. This is a mother no one could want but also a person difficult not to fall in love with in the course of the play. When she finally does create an escape for herself from this hellish family, the audience in fact roars its approval in applause and hurrahs.
The rest of this cast is quite well-suited to their roles, too. Will Marchetti as the hospital-bed prone and dying Ben is grouchy from the get-go, using these last few hours on earth to bellow every curse word he has kept inside for all-so-many years and to lament what a wretched life and family he has endured (while lovingly remembering his own father dead half a lifetime ago). Jessica Bates and Nicolas Pelczar bring their own worlds of bizarre, sad fantasies and failures in excellent portrayals of Lisa and Curtis. They are two siblings who have difficult, actually impossible times remembering any happy moment from their childhood. (Lisa’s one memory with her dad turns out to be a scene from a movie she once saw.) Each as an adult has sought unsuccessfully through alcohol (Lisa) and fantasy boyfriends (Curtis) to craft some escape and happiness.
The snappy first half of the play in the hospital room takes a bizarre and puzzling diversion in the first scene of Act 2. Curtis becomes a focus in a way that seems a bit odd and takes some of the wind out of the pace and energy. Scene 2, now back in the hospital room, revives the tight-paced dialogue and rescues the audience’s attention.
What hits home in this well-written play is that people often endure lifelong, hellish relationships where there are felt obligations but no genuine love. This endurance becomes a norm that is not questioned until some crisis (like a dying father) emerges. Every relationship in this dark comedy is a soured one, even the ones with unseen spouses, supposed boyfriends, and attending nurse. Only in final desperation after all past and present lies have burst before us does each surviving character finally find a way to escape the hell he or she has lived for a lifetime. For each, the possibility of a genuine connection with another human suddenly emerges, even if it may last only for moments beyond the play’s end. Each character takes a baby step to reach out to someone where relationship might be possible; and we as audience leave actually liking, even loving these four, growling Lyons.
Rating: 4 E’s