Playwright Nicky Silver (Pterodactyls, The Food Chain) returns to form with his latest dysfunctional-family comedy-drama The Lyons. He is also quite fortunate that Linda Lavin chose to do his play instead of reprising her roles in Other Desert Cities or Follies in their Broadway transfers. Lavin makes the most of her juicy role, giving her best performance since her star turn in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Although The Lyons goes off track and isn't as entertaining when Lavin isn't on stage, it's often bitingly funny.
The first half of the play takes place in a hospital room where Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is dying of cancer. His wife of many years, Rita (Lavin), thumbs through decorating magazines while bickering with Ben. He curses a lot, arguing that he doesn't want to redo their living room. She replies that she's going to redecorate whether he's around to enjoy it or not. "It's just a washed-out shade of dashed hopes," Rita says of a chair badly in need of an upgrade.
Their daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) comes to visit, giving Rita an excuse to try to set her up with a terminally ill man down the hall. Their son Curtis (Michael Esper), a gay writer, also arrives despite the fact that he doesn't get along with Ben. Despite the deathbed scenario, Silver gives the actors plenty of witty one-liners. Lavin gets many of the best ones and delivers them flawlessly. Her facial expressions are equally funny. The whole first act is terrific thanks to the caustic dialogue, sharp acting and tight direction from Mark Brokaw, who makes the transitions between laugh-out-loud jokes to dark family drama seamless.
The second act, which has three scenes in three different settings, is more uneven. It opens with a monologue by Lisa at an AA meeting. Grant does a fine job with the speech, which sheds some light on her character, but it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the play. Next is a scene in a Manhattan apartment that Curtis is thinking of buying. A handsome real estate broker named Brian (Gregory Wooddell) lists the coop's merits. Curtis flirts with him a bit, and the scene ends in rather creepy fashion. Silver loses focus in these scenes, but luckily he returns to the hospital room for the amusing final scene. A nurse (Brenda Pressley) gets more to do near the end. It seems that Silver deliberately beefed up the supporting roles to give the actors more to work with; the results are mixed. Rita, undeniably the best-written character, is a role tailor-made for Lavin, who reestablishes herself as one of our best comic actresses.
One quibble is that the tall, WASP-y Grant doesn't look like she could possibly be Lavin's daughter. But if we can have race-blind casting, I guess we can have height- and ethnicity-blind casting, too.