“Just because I yell, doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” my mother used to say. If that maxim holds true, then the Lyons must be the most loving—and hoarse–family in existence.
Love, bile and co-dependence are doled out in generous amounts in Nicky Silver’s savagely funny play The Lyons, a welcome antidote to holiday familial schmaltz being administered at Round House Theatre under the expert guidance of director John Vreeke.
Death provides permission for the Lyons to go at it like possums in a burlap bag, although you get the feeling this clan has never exactly been reticent. Patriarch Ben (John Lescault) is in the hospital dying of cancer and the disease has made him a potty mouth—even the most banal of questions is greeted with a fusillade of profanity.
Wife Rita (Naomi Jacobson) kvetches about his language, but pretty much takes the whole situation in stride. “Who do you think you are, going to hell?” she snaps, in one of her many lacerating zingers. “You haven’t done anything.”
She has been tethered to this pepper pot for 40 years and knows escape is near. While he rages against the dying of the light, she perkily thumbs through home décor magazines, talking about redoing the living room in an “icy, cold blue” and asking her husband “What about Mediterranean?” not caring that he won’t be around to enjoy the new room.
Enter the adult children Lisa (Kimberly Gilbert), a recovering alcoholic and divorcee with two children, and Curtis (Marcus Kyd), a gay writer who appears to be in a stable long-standing relationship. Rita nonchalantly drops the bomb that Dad’s on his deathbed, saying “we didn’t want to bother you.”
So the Lyons gather in the hospital room, barely able to tolerate each other in such a small space but at the same time, they cannot bear to be apart. The first act is a brutal free-for-all, as everyone tries to make it all about them rather than the dying man lying in the center of the room. A seen-it-all Nurse (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) drops in and out of the action.
You have to laugh at the extravagant selfishness of their actions, as Rita notes “when the kids are at camp, the knives come out” in her story about the summer when Ben realized Curtis was gay and responded by getting rid of all his so-called “girly” toys and his “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall” record and replacing them with toy soldiers and “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” That summer was also notable for Rita buying a gun and when Ben expresses his astonishment, Rita deadpans “It was a WHIM.”
Then, Curtis blurts out that Lisa’s ex-husband was abusive and she responds by informing the family that Curtis’s boyfriend is imaginary. With most of the secrets out in the open, there is no cleansing sense of relief or closure. These secrets were part of their identity and they wore them proudly. It is almost as if they—and the audience—are choking on truth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Rita, played with brazen bravado by Miss Jacobsen. For a minute, she drops the overbearing Jewish mother act—funny as it is—and talks to Ben simply about what basket cases their adult children are. “Our children are disasters, lonely and terrible,” she quietly acknowledges and in that hush you see a glimmer of recognition and forgiveness.
The second act goes between an empty apartment and the hospital room after Ben’s funeral. Misha Kachman’s clever set revolves between the two woebegone spaces. The second half begins with Lisa’s monologue, which takes place at an AA meeting. Miss Gilbert is both fragile and incandescent as Lisa—someone who tries so hard but is such a mess– who admits that her family drives her to drink and how she finds it exhausting to remain cheerful.
Next, Curtis has an unsettling encounter with a real estate agent Brian (Brandon McCoy), who thinks he is merely showing Curtis an apartment. There is something off from the start—a weird sexual tension coupled with Curtis asking questions you normally don’t pose to a stranger trying to sell you some real estate. Mr. Kyd and Mr. McCoy adeptly handle the shifts in mood and emotions, making the situation seem highly charged and desperately sad.
Back at the hospital, it is now Curtis occupying a hospital bed and acting very much like his father. Taking advantage of her kids being in the same room, Rita makes an announcement that would not be out of place in an over-the-top reality show and Miss Jacobsen delivers this A-bomb with such style you almost applaud Rita.
This leaves Curtis and Lisa to fend for themselves and when Lisa crawls into the hospital bed you catch a hint of their childhood bond. “Next time, choose people,” she says to her brother and while this is sound advice, you wonder—really? Everyone in the play is such monsters and even the unseen characters appear to be opportunistic or abusive, and Lisa is telling her brother that human contact is the way to go?
Perhaps if we had seen more humanity and less collateral damage to the Lyons, this ending would ring true. In keeping with the lethal spirit of Mr. Silver’s play, it should have gone for unsullied savagery and not a last-ditch effort at reconciliation and hope.
The Lyons by Nicky Silver . Directed by John Vreeke . Featuring Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Kimberly Gilbert, Naomi Jacobson, Marcus Kyd, John Lescault, and Brandon McCoy . Scenic design: Misha Kachman . Costume design: Rosemary Pardee . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Sound design: Matthew M. Nielson . Props master: Andrea Moore . Stage manager: Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.