The Lyons are like wild animals. They feed off each other’s misery, scratch and bite without warning and attack when provoked. But during a preview performance of Brüka’s latest production, I loved spending time with this dysfunctional family of sour, miserable people.
The Lyons is the latest from the master of caustic black comedies about dysfunction, Nicky Silver (The Food Chain, Fat Men in Skirts), whom a New York Times writer once said could be the progeny of Neil Simon and Edward Albee. His latest brings us into the—pardon the pun—lions’ den—in this story, a hospital room—to watch Ben Lyons’ family gather around his death bed and claw at each other, proving that death brings out the worst in people.
Tom Plunkett plays Ben Lyons, the patriarch whose body is riddled with cancer, and has been for a while. His “Lyoness” of a wife, Rita (Kathy Welch), is a stereotypical, passive-aggressive, belittling Jewish mother who seems wholly unaffected by her husband’s impending death. As the play opens, she sits near Ben’s hospital bed flipping through home decorating magazines, torturing him with ideas for how she’ll redecorate their living room, with its carpets “matted down with resignation,” when he’s gone.
At first, it’s not clear whether she’s in complete denial or is just plain cruel in her utter disregard for the gravity of the situation. She offers up unsolicited criticism in little barbs disguised as love. To Ben’s plaintive “I’m dying, Rita,” her retort is, “I know, dear, but try to be positive!”
Ben’s plenty ferocious himself, though. His cancer seems to seep through his pores as he spews hostility and four-letter words at his unaffected wife, and it’s hard to know where our sympathies ought to lie.
Now at the 11th hour, Rita has finally called their grown children, Curtis (Bryce Keil) and Lisa (Sandra Brunell-Neace), to their father’s bedside. Until this point, Ben’s cancer seems to have slipped her mind.
It’s been awful having these people as parents. Soon after Lisa arrives, Rita asks if Lisa has had her son tested, because he seems “just a little bit retarded.” And homophobic Ben refuses to even acknowledge Curtis, his openly gay son. All this acrimony has had disastrous effects on the young Lyons: Lisa, an avowed alcoholic since fourth grade, is considering reuniting with her abusive ex-husband, while Curtis’ own seemingly healthy relationship contains a seriously creepy secret.
Nicky Silver’s writing crackles with hilarious, cutting one-liners, so that even in the darkest moments of revelation we laugh and even cheer for them. Though each family member’s deep, dark secrets surface, they never completely lose their humanity. They never fully become monsters—we understand why they are the way they are, screwed up as they may be, and can find a way to love them, anyway.
By far the meatiest performances come from the Lyons ladies. Kathy Welch’s Rita is scathing in her bluntness, yet manages to appear completely nonthreatening even as she’s luring her prey into the vicious attack to come. And Sandra Brunell-Neace, Brüka’s playwright-in-residence, seems far too natural and relatable as Lisa to be merely a fictional character on stage. Lisa has been an easy target for her parents, and Neace’s authentic portrayal shows how that can manifest in dangerous ways, even when things seem quite normal, or even laughable, on the surface.
As Brüka’s producing artistic director Mary Bennett indicated to me a couple of months ago, this latest play by Silver is semi-autobiographical. Remembering this as I watched the Lyons tear into each other, I laughed and shuddered all at once.