Monty Python fans fondly remember a sketch about the most awful family in Great Britain and its cat-ironing mum, colonically obsessed dad, cross-dressing harridan of a daughter, clumsily pedantic son and another son so obese his sole activity consisted of lying on the couch hollering for baked beans. If there were a sweepstakes for the worst middle-class Jewish family in New York, high among the contenders would be the Lyons, a hilariously wretched clan of malcontents gathered in a hospital room waiting for papa’s metastasized cancer to finish the job.
While Ben (Dick Latessa) bemoans his son’s homosexuality and daughter’s alcoholism, Rita (the priceless Linda Lavin) flips through House Beautiful, already choosing how she’ll redecorate once the man she never really loved breathes his last. Their grown children, paralyzed by their parents’ dysfunction, toss blame and recrimination around the room with paddleball velocity.
Laced with vulgarity, Jewish stereotypes and the kind of behavior that only people who have truly stopped giving a shit can hurl at each other, this first scene of The Lyons is riotous like Eugene O’Neill—as rewritten by Larry David.
That the rest of the play stays funny and compelling (there’s no way it could maintain that initial level of divine madness) is a tribute to playwright Nicky Silver, whose early works (Raised in Captivity, The Food Chain) boasted a uniquely caustic absurdity that often outstayed its welcome before the final bows. This time, Silver has found his arc to make us care (will the children break free of their narcissistic chains?), even as his oddball plot twists retain their goofy Silvery-ness without overstretching credulity.
To call The Lyons the Linda Lavin show, as some critics have done, gives short shrift to director Mark Brokaw and his fine ensemble (including Michael Esper and Kate Jennings Grant as the younger Lyons, Gregory Wooddell as a closeted real estate agent and Brenda A. Pressley as a no-nonsense nurse). Still, witnessing the way the former Alice star can draw out a vowel, cross her eyes before rolling them, turn an earnest smile into a fed-up grimace and raise her volume from a three to an eleven while she’s nailing a punch line is to witness low comedy at its highest level. This Lyoness is a tigress.
A closing date of July 1 has been set for The Lyons at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. The play ran off broadway at the Vineyard Theatre last fall and has been running at Cort since April 23.