Nicky Silver’s characters are at their best when they’re at their very worst: driving a woman to instant deafness and eventual suicide (Pterodactyls), stabbing themselves with letter openers (Raised in Captivity), being held at gunpoint by an overzealous crisis counselor (The Food Chain). So there could be no more fertile setting for a Silver play than a hospital, the locale for his delightfully black comedy The Lyons.
The hospital room belongs to the soon-to-expire Ben Lyons (a fantastically cranky Dick Latessa). But it’s overseen, with almost absurd indifference, by his wife, Rita (Linda Lavin), who’s preoccupied with the imminent redecoration of her living room. Really, how can she be expected to know whether Ben has cancer of the esophagus — or ”asparagus,” as she says — when she’s deciding between a Marrakech theme, Chinese modern, and early American? (In her defense, if your sofa were ”some washed out shade of dashed hopes” and chairs ”the color of disgust,” you’d be obsessed with Middle Eastern mosaics too.)
Plus, imminent death has made Ben both cantankerous and profane. ”Every other word out of your mouth is s— and f— and c—sucker. I don’t think it’s becoming,” declares Rita. ”Go f— yourself,” Ben replies, invoking the unofficial motto of the 2011?12 Broadway season. (The off-color phrase is heard in Clybourne Park, The Lyons, and The Columnist.) And since there’s a man on his deathbed, it’s only a matter of time before we meet his screwed-up children: gay pathological liar Curtis (Michael Esper) and not-quite-recovering alcoholic Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant).
The hospital scenes crackle with an amphetamine-induced dexterity, pinballing from disorder (Curtis’ mental instability) to disappointment (Lisa’s failed marriage) to disease (Ben’s cancer of the…whatever) to disparagement (Rita calling her grandson possibly ”slightly retarded”). And Lavin laps up every line and every last laugh. Perhaps even better than her spot-on delivery is what she does between the lines. Watch her face after she breaks out the whopper ”And that’s the time I bought the gun.” She should trademark that eyebrow move.
But outside the confines of that fluorescent-lit, pressure-packed, disinfected room, The Lyons feels ill at ease. Though Silver has wisely excised Lisa’s rambling Alcoholics Anonymous monologue since the late 2011 Off Broadway run, an extended apartment-showing scene lingers at the top of act two; and on second viewing, it seems less compatible with the witty whirlwind we’ve just witnessed. (It actually feels like a short play in itself, like one that might appear at the EST Marathon mentioned in the scene — 10 points for audience members who get that inside-NYC-theater reference.) It does provide a convenient route back to the hospital, where comic order is, thankfully, restored. But there’s only so much struggling-actor shtick a viewer can take, even from a hunky blond broad-shouldered broker (Gregory Wooddell). Besides, that all-white apartment could really use a Rita Lyons makeover. Hmm… I’m thinking light blue. Or, as Rita describes it: ”Icy blue. Glacier blue. Stunning.” B
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