Story: Ben Lyons is dying of cancer. He’s confined to a Manhattan hospital room, where a nurse periodically checks in on him. His wife of 40 years, Rita, sits in a chair by his bedside, thumbing through a magazine. He asks about his adult daughter Lisa, a recovering alcoholic, but couldn’t care less about his grown son, Curtis, a despised homosexual.
These are the Lyons. They’re a New York City Jewish family, and they are highly dysfunctional. So, since their lives have been filled with tumult and turmoil, why should Ben’s impending death be any different? Ben hurls expletives from his death bed while arguing with Rita, who already is planning to make over their living room after Ben is gone.
He’s also unhappy that Curtis abandoned his given name of Hilly, named after his grandfather, whom Ben refers to as a “man’s man.” He has little use for Curtis, who has lived for three years with his partner Peter, whom none of the other Lyons has ever met. As for Lisa, Ben is glad she’s divorced from her abusive ex-husband David, who has left her to raise sons Chad and Jeremy mostly by herself.
Ben has had cancer for quite a while, but Rita only recently told their children so as not to worry them. When Lisa and Curtis arrive at the hospital, they’re shocked to learn how little time Ben has left. Let the brawls begin anew.
Highlights: Despite a lengthy and successful career as a playwright, The Lyons marked Nicky Silver’s Broadway debut when it opened in 2012 following its Off-Broadway premiere in 2011. It’s scheduled to make its first London appearance in September, just after this sparkling presentation by Max & Louie Productions concludes its St. Louis premiere.
The local rendition of The Lyons marks the first theatrical collaboration of actor Bobby Miller and director Wayne Salomon in 26 years, since the waning days of their involvement in the innovative and vibrant Theatre Project Company. It’s a splendid reunion, a tantalizing theatrical treat for an audience to benefit from the wealth of dramatic knowledge the duo brings to the stage.
Other Info: Salomon’s direction is both nurturing and democratic, an important distinction in that Silver’s work is surprising in its complexity and scope and requires a director who can navigate it successfully through myriad nuances. So, while Miller is a compelling and hilarious presence in Act I, his character gives way in the second act to his wife and children.
It’s significant to note Silver’s title, as the work is not focused on just one family member. While the first act provides waves of fitful laughter as the Lyons engage in verbal combat even as their patriarch approaches death, the two scenes in the second act veer surprisingly and abruptly both in content and presentation. Salomon carefully guides his cast through the play’s labyrinthine plot to its bizarre but somewhat consistent conclusion.
There are minor problems that occur. While Ben (Miller) and Rita (Judi Mann) sport thick ethnic and geographic accents, as does the tending nurse (Julie Layton), son Curtis, as played by Charlie Barron, is bereft of any such trait, while daughter Lisa’s (Meghan Maguire) seems to come and go.
More significantly, though, all of the performers deliver memorable interpretations to bolster Silver’s gallows humor and deliciously skewed outlook. Miller depicts Ben as irascible and uncompromising, hanging on dearly to his narrow world view even as the end approaches. An amusing highlight of the show is hearing him softly sing The Ballad of the Green Berets as Rita drones on obliviously about something or other in the foreground.
Mann makes the most of her colorful character. Rita is a woman who reveals shocking truths about her life during the play’s two acts and two hours. She’s cavalier in her opinions, blunt with her sarcastic observations about family members and determined to make the most of what she has left.
Maguire’s emotions can turn on a dime as the fragile Lisa. She’s alternately protective of her father, angry at the late word of his condition delivered by her mother and defensive of her own children’s upbringing. Her scene when she returns tipsily to the hospital room is another of the play’s highlights.
Barron has the burden of proof to bear at the start of the work’s second act, when it veers from rollicking comedy to dark drama. He carries it off with considerable aplomb, as Curtis moves from generic conversation mode with an amiable real estate agent named Brian to an aggressive and pitiable confrontation.
Aaron Orion Baker is marvelous in his one scene as the congenial realtor, demonstrating a breadth of character development in his own right as his meeting with Curtis turns ominous. As the no-nonsense nurse, Julie Layton sparkles as the family’s slender link to sanity and as an unexpected source of optimism.
Kudos to scenic designer Justin Barisonek for the view of Gotham through the window of the drab and dreary hospital room, which is adorned with properties designer Peggy Knock’s appropriate additions. Amanda Were adds sound, Kevin Reed provides costumes and Maureen Berry the lighting.
The Lyons is deceptively deep and provocative in ways you won’t expect. As presented by Salomon and Miller et al, it’s also richly rewarding theater.
Play: The Lyons
Company: Max & Louie Productions
Venue: COCA Black Box Theater, 524 Trinity Avenue
Dates: August 28, 29, 30, 31, September 1
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 795-8778 or maxandlouie.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb
NOTE: Bobby Miller has had to withdraw from the cast for the remainder of the run due to illness. Wayne Salomon will portray Ben Lyons in the remaining productions.