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By Bill Hirschman
Dysfunctional families have been a theater staple since Sophocles and Freud. But few clans can compete with Nicky Silver’s titular The Lyons as a familial unit so completely broken that its list of neurotic coping mechanisms could fill a psychiatric textbook.
Yet, Silver’s wickedly hilarious satire about self-centered souls, on display at The Women’s Theatre Project, hides a deeper portrait of wounded people still seeking the affirmation that they never got from the people who society says should have been their primary nurturers.
As the family members reach out for human connection over the next two hours, Silver miraculously manages to make the audience soften their justifiably harsh initial assessment of these noxious creatures.
Director Genie Croft and her cast courageously embrace the irredeemable failings of the protagonists in this jet black comedy while eventually making them more pitiable than damnable.
This is saying something. Consider the opening scene: Rita, a quintessential Jewish matron, is seemingly sitting vigil at the hospital bedside of her husband, Ben, who is in the very last days of terminal cancer.
But Rita is absorbed in a copy of “House Beautiful” and nattering blithely about redecorating the living room once Ben is dead. She is making sure Ben knows she is going to erase every vestige of his taste. She is openly gleeful at her imminent freedom. He responds angrily, “I’m dying, Rita.” To which she tosses off while turning a magazine page, “Yes, I know, but try to be positive.”
Ben, whose crotchety toxicity clearly was his salient personality feature long before his illness, rails at everyone and everything with an unending use of obscenities.
Soon they are visited by their grown children who deeply resent how little love their parents have bestowed upon them. Alcoholic daughter Lisa is more upset no one told her about her father’s condition months ago, as opposed to being concerned for her father. She feigns concern, but when she tries to summon up a touching childhood memory to share with her father, the only story she can relate is plagiarized from the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. Son Curtis, a short story writer, arrives but it’s clear his father has always detested him for being gay. Within minutes, the siblings are slicing at each other and betraying each other’s secret confidences. None of the four qualify as maladjusted; they’re not adjusted at all to the fact that none seem to have loved each other.
If you’ll let yourself, you can savor this uninhibited slugfest of self-obsessed people who have been freed by Ben’s imminent demise to say exactly what has been on their minds for decades, consequences to family ties be damned. And add in that none of the Lyons is quite what they seem. One of the better adjusted characters turns out to be far more neurotic than we think, and one of the least likable may end up being the most admirable.
Silver, author of The Food Chain, has a dyspeptic, even misanthropic view of Mankind. He condemns self-centeredness and thoughtlessness by creating these outsized but somewhat familiar monsters. We gasp at their bottomless capacity for savage self-interest and shudder at their familiarity. But he also has compassion for his flawed fellow creatures. He acknowledges that much of our damage is caused by the people we laughingly refer to as our loved ones. Yet, Silver says, there comes a point in adulthood when the persistent nursing of those injuries is self-inflicted damage; we should get past it if we are have any hope of a fulfilling life. The last scene is subtitled “Most Poor Sons Of Bitches,” which refers to Auntie Mame who said, “Life is a banquet and some poor sons of bitches are starving to death!”
It’s not a perfect script. Silver takes Curtis on a detour ostensibly to look at a new apartment. The scene has a couple of crucial reasons to exist, but they don’t become clear until deep into what seemed a diluting distraction.
Croft has elicited pitch perfect performances out of her cast and encouraged them to dive into the caustic darkness without flinching. She prevents them from becoming cartoon caricatures we can’t care for; they may be comic figures, but they’re multi-dimensional.
Leading the pack is Jessica K. Peterson who played a troubled mother this season in Brighton Beach Memoirs. But that role didn’t pose the challenge that she triumphs over here in her portrayal of Rita, a woman who has already moved past her marriage even though her husband still breathes. At one point, Peterson’s Rita talks calmly of once buying a gun and only failing to use it on Ben because she couldn’t find the bullets. He exclaims in shock, “You wanted to kill me!” To which Peterson excuses herself with a matter-of-fact shrug, “It was a whim.”
But Rita is more complex than that. Peterson makes credible the crux of why Rita stayed with Ben for 40 years when she never ever loved him. Peterson is also persuasively convincing that while Rita feels little for her children, she is afraid of being alone and persistently begs them to move back in with her.
Kevin Reilley gives one of his best performances as the toxic curmudgeon, a grizzled burned-out crabapple. When Rita assures the children, “It’s okay, he’s had a very good life,” Reilley pitches a wonderful topsin on his sour retort, “Not quite.” Or when a phone rings in the hospital room, Reilley calls out, “I hope it’s death.”
As the walking wounded siblings, Jacqueline Laggy is a wonderfully woebegone daughter whining about her parents’ neglect, and Matthew Korinko delivers her brother as a man never comfortable in his own skin.
Clay Cartland plays a realtor with a secret and Carolyn Johnson is a nurse who has seen too many dramas to cut such narcissists much slack.
If you are in tune with Silver’s sense of humor, all of this is terribly funny, but these are downright horrid people. That may explain why this 2011-2012 play was a critical success in New York with a bravura performance by Linda Lavin as Rita, but has played only a handful of times in regional theaters since then.
Not for everyone, certainly, The Women’s Theatre Project delivers a tasty cup of holiday eggnog laced with arsenic.
The Lyons runs through Dec. 22 at the Willow Theatre in Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton, south of Palmetto Park Blvd. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Runs two hours with intermission. Tickets are $25, call (561) 347-3948 or visit WillowTheatre.org. For more information about The Women’s Theatre Project, visit WomensTheatreProject.com.