The Lyons

by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Featuring Linda Lavin, Michael Esper, Dick Latessa
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
April 23, 2012 — open run
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 10, 2012

  • “I forgive you for making sure I knew I wasn’t the child you wanted.” (Curtis)
  • “People smell like who they are.” (Ben)
  • “You’ve had a dozen years to write yourself self out of mediocre obscurity and you’ve failed.” (Rita)
  • “Whatever your childhood was it’s an old book and the pages are faded.” (Rita)
(L-R) Michael Esper, Dick Latessa, Linda Lavin and Kate Jennings Grant. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This is a play of three scenes, and primarily the story of one character who has significant and moving speeches in the first and third. Linda Lavin as our matriarch Rita Lyons evokes at select moments an entire history of a mid-20th century educated woman who settles for safety and lives in artifice in well-chosen words and achingly spot-on delivery. We want to spend time with her, perhaps in a one person play. What Nicky Silver has crafted instead is a six character play that provides significant stage time to Rita, plot points that put dying cantankerous husband Ben (Dick Latessa) and then injured writer son Curtis (Michael Esper) in a hospital bed for two  scenes, and a few additional characters including a plot-peripheral daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant). As audience members attempting to feel the through line of this family of adult children and everyone at several moments of transition, we are flummoxed by labile emotion from son Curtis who dominates the second scene, and otherwise transported by restraint and pain and resolve and perfect timing Lavin as Rita has developed over a career. The reason to see this show is Lavin’s performance. As a play, the challenges and multiple plot cul-de-sacs overwhelm.

The piece plays like three separate creations in the three separate scenes. In the first, father Ben is dying and the adult children are called in to pay their respects. (Disturbingly long into his illness, just at the end — “We didn’t want to worry you” says Rita.) In the second scene, Ben’s ruse of a long-term lover is exploded in a visit to an apartment he may or may not be seriously considering buying, and intense interactions with the male realtor Brian (Gregory Wooddell).  In the final scene we are back in the hospital, perhaps the same hospital room, where Ben is receiving medical care from the same nurse (Brenda Pressley) who cared for dad (an oddly questionable detail) and mother and sister report in on their own efforts to move on with their lives. These adult children express anger and act  emotionally like teenagers. Lisa is in AA (and has a relapse in the course of one of the hospital scenes) and Curtis does his share of screaming and yelling and finally accepting himself. And yet — what resonates in the moment and in the emotional afterglow of this play are the fabulous lines delivered by tightly wound, deeply wounded, emotionally buried Rita who has kept up appearances yet has lived a life of profound sorrow and the sense of having settled. Until she moves on.

I have experienced both the 2011 Vineyard Theatre premiere production of this play, and now the Broadway production with the same cast. While tweaks have been imposed on a line or a speech here and there, the play belongs now as it belonged then to the stunning, chilling, and surprisingly empathetic Rita in the hands of the masterful Ms. Lavin.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 23, 2012)

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