The Lyons Review: Linda Lavin, Broader on Broadway

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Linda Lavin, twice divorced, thrice-married, five times Tony-nominated (one of which she won), nine years as the star of the sitcom Alice, is at age 74 performing her 16th role on Broadway in the first play by Nicky Silver to move to the Great White Way, although he has been writing plays for 32 years and getting them produced Off-Broadway for 19.
But you cannot go by the numbers in “The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s gift to Linda Lavin, and Linda Lavin’s gift to Nicky Silver.
When I reviewed “The Lyons” Off-Broadway I said that this play about a dysfunctional Jewish family was the most enjoyable I’d seen so far this season. That was back in October; much has happened since.
On second viewing now that it has transferred to Broadway, I find the performances broader and the play slighter. But it is still entertaining to spend two hours with the unhappy, unpleasant Lyons family– self-involved mother, distant sourpuss father, alcoholic daughter, angry gay son.
Twitter Badge (.gif)We meet the family in a hospital room, where the entire first act takes place. Mother Rita Lyons (Lavin) is sitting in a chair flipping through magazines looking for ideas on how to redecorate her home once her husband is dead. Her husband, Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is lying in the hospital bed next to her, astonished and outraged that she is doing this right in front of him.
“I’m dying, Rita,” Ben says.
“Yes, I know,” Rita says, still flipping through a magazine. “Try to be positive. My mother used to say ‘Dying isn’t so bad. Not when you consider the alternative.’”
Rita looks up from her magazine, her face crinkled with uncertainty. The audience roars, as it did downtown.
For all of Silver’s hip indie aura, he has a way with a joke that is as sure-fire as Neil Simon or Woody Allan. No surprise that he has had a brush with the mainstem before: He wrote a new book for the 2002 Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hart musical, “The Boys From Syracuse.”
At the same time, Silver’s sense of the absurd and his sometimes ugly edge — the uneasy mix of light and dark tones in his plays — have more in common with such playwrights as Edward Albee and John Guare.

That “The Lyons” is being played more broadly is in part surely just a practical matter: The Cort Theater holds more than nine times the seating capacity as the Vineyard, where “The Lyons” premiered. A larger audience means that Lavin and the five other members of the cast have to play bigger simply to be heard.

That it is slighter also seems in part intentional. They’ve eliminated an entire scene from the beginning of Act II (a monologue, really) of daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) talking at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous about her life and loves, which was not meant to be funny.

One can suspect these changes were effected to accommodate the more mainstream theatergoers of Broadway, but, even if so, I am not scandalized. What worked in “The Lyons” downtown still works. The acting still could not be better. Linda Lavin gives a nuanced (if louder) performance that should not be missed. She may initially seem little more than a quirky caricature but she winds up something more, different, thought-provoking. But her performance would surely be diminished without a foil like Dick Latessa, a veteran of many a Neil Simon play, with perfect comic timing. The play is given something of an edge by Michael Esper as the son Curtis. Unshaven, his shirt permanently untucked, swinging from hang-dog melancholy to bursts of red-faced rage, Esper somehow manages to make his character both alarming and funny.

My changed reaction may in part simply reflect my having seen the play already: A scene in Act II between son Curtis (Esper) and a real estate broker/would-be actor Brian (Gregory Wooddell) has a surprise ending, which colors everything that happens before it. (I still love Silver’s throwaway reference in it to the Ensemble Studio Theater, an example of his devilish wit:
Curtis: Lots of stairs and the smell of urine?
Brian: That’s right! But respected. I mean people respect it. I was in last year’s marathon series, Evening B. The third play
.)

By the end of “The Lyons” we are back in the hospital, and the nurse (Brenda Pressley) is adamantly against offering sage advice.
“You think I can explain life to you? You think I’m
going to have some big insight into the wreckage of your life? Shit. I’m a nurse.”

It’s a speech that, one feels, Nicky Silver would have with us as well, substituting “nurse” with “playwright.” But the nurse does wind up offering something, and so does the playwright. The characters may feel disconnected, their future uncertain, their lives not going by the numbers, but they are each finding their way towards happiness.

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The Lyons
At The Cort Theater
Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw; sets by Allen Moyer; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by David Lander; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; fight director, Thomas Schall
Cast: Michael Esper (Curtis Lyons), Kate Jennings Grant (Lisa Lyons), Dick Latessa (Ben Lyons), Linda Lavin (Rita Lyons), Brenda Pressley (Nurse), Brian (Gregory Wooddell)
Running time: 2 hours.
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Jonathan Mandell, who tweets as New York Theater, is a native New Yorker and third-generation journalist with diverse experience on newspapers, magazines and websites.He has written for a wide varie ...read more

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