The Lyons takes you into a family's heart of darkness

The Lyons begins with a fairly familiar premise: a deathbed vigil featuring the protracted dying of a Jewish patriarch, Ben, and the shallow chatter of Rita, his wife. This cancer-ridden father isn't wise or long-suffering, however. He's a mean-spirited monster of blind ego with perhaps one single redeeming feature: He loved — actually loved — self-absorbed Rita. She felt trapped by his love, and the marriage became a long-simmering stew of hatred and rage — into which, in due time, arrived two unlucky children: Curtis, who's been rejected by Ben because of his homosexuality and is unable to connect with anyone and harbors a creepy fantasy life; and poor Lisa, who reeled away from being her parents' verbal punching bag to a life of alcoholism and blows from the husband whom she's now left. Will there be a tender reconciliation? Don't count on it. Hatred breeds hatred as surely as love breeds love, and the sins of these parents are most certainly visited on their broken children.

And yet The Lyons is a very funny play. As the action begins, Rita riffles through glossy magazines, contemplating the changes she'll make to the living room decor once Ben's finally popped off and sharing her thoughts with him. "I'm dying, Rita," he says.

"I know," she responds, "but try to be positive."

When he reminisces about his own father — "a great man, a giant man" — she asks calmly, "Didn't he sell Zyklon B to the Nazis during World War Two?"

"He sold sweaters."

"I remember it differently."

"They never proved anything."

Freed by impending death to express his every ugly thought, Ben lets loose again and again with a volley of expletives. Hardly unearned, you think, when you learn that Rita once tried to kill him — although, as she explains, only on "a whim."

All of this is nastily, rip-roaringly funny. But there's some heart, even here. We eventually get a glimpse of Rita's existential loneliness, her children's torment, the depth of Ben's sentimental attachment to his no doubt equally horrifying father.

The second act opens with what appears to be a digression: Curtis looking over an apartment with a young real-estate agent. But as the scene disintegrates into misunderstanding and chaos, you see how it fits into the over-arching theme and carries the story forward, eventually bringing us back to that central hospital bed.

For the Vintage production of this smart, hilarious and often insightful play, director Bernie Cardell has gathered a very strong cast. Deborah Persoff's vivid, powerful portrayal of Rita is matched by a quietly vicious performance from Joey Wishnia as Ben. Preston Lee Britton manages to endow messed-up Curtis with a level of yearning and soul that makes you almost feel for him. Haley Johnson's natural warmth and groundedness as an actor add pathos to Lisa's vulnerability and the fact that she's constantly on the verge of psychic disintegration. Nathan Bock imprints himself intensely on your mind as the straightforward realtor, Brian, and Darcy J. Kennedy is a sympathetic nurse Jeanette.

The night we saw The Lyons, the audience was well-lubricated, and there was lots of giggling, chortling, snickering and even volleys of high-intensity and distracting laughter — particularly whenever anyone on stage said the word "fuck." This made it hard to discern the more serious currents coursing beneath the hurling of insults, epithets and imprecations. Some of the problem can be attributed to the direction, which could have mined both the script's nastiness and its emotional territory more deeply. In his program notes, Cardell describes this family as "daffy" — which hardly does it justice — and suggests the play is "about connection and how we can repair broken bonds, no matter how damaged." I didn't see a lot of bond repair going on; much of the pleasure of this comedy lies in its sheer, take-no-prisoners black-heartedness. If a moment of grace does occasionally tiptoe in, you know it will soon be looking around in horror, realizing just what it's stumbled into and sliding hastily out the door.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman