The Lyons is an incredible one-act play conjoined to an impaired second act. Linda Lavin is simply magnificent as Rita Lyons, a woman (literally) waiting for her husband Ben (Dick Latessa) to die. Some of the most riotous sidesplitting moments come from the sparring between the two. Mr. Latessa is wonderfully cast and plays Ben with such candor and sensitivity. Rita’s dialogue is peppered with such bon mots one can only wonder of the ruin in lesser hands. But under Mark Brokaw’s direction, Ms. Lavin’s interpretation is simply perfect. When a play seems to have such perfectly timed humor it’s difficult to review. If the summary is completely accurate, readers will have a skewed expectation that the reviewer did not have. How then do you communicate the sophistication and spot on accuracy of the very funny dialogue, without potentially disappointing an audience? Well, once the curtain rose in the dainty Cort Theatre for the second act, that particular conundrum ebbed.
While Ben and Rita’s adult children (Curtis and Lisa) appear in the hospital room in the first act, their parents are still there to do the heavy lifting. Curtis (Michael Esper) and Lisa (Katie Jennings Grant) are ‘adult children’ in the truest sense. They have victimized themselves to the point of utter infantile dysfunction. (No doubt much will be said about this play (by Nicky Silver) being about a dysfunctional family. I did not see any signs of a family not interacting effectively. The adult children have ruined their lives but that does not make the family itself dysfunctional.) The actors are solid interpreters of very dull characters. Both “children” are on the other side of 30. Curtis is incapable of ever having a romantic relationships; ever. He’s also never supported himself, but that’s almost beside the point. Lisa is an alcoholic with a self-destructive streak to beat the band. She seems to have some sort of savior impulse that does not extend to her family and does not seem to have an organic root. Damaged characters can be interesting, (Ms. Lavin’s previous gig in Other Desert Cities proves that.) These two people are not an example of that particular genre. Drawing them the way Mr. Silver has, does evoke a response in the audience. But as it is frowned upon to get up on stage and perform a duo of “snap out of it” smacks, there’s no outlet for the frustration.
The second act opens with a scene in an empty (for sale) apartment. It is a long awkward scene (following an intensely paced and hysterical first act) that takes far too long to make a minor point, which could have been made off-stage. According to the Playbill, there is normally a scene preceding this scene; depicting Lisa at Alcoholic Anonymous. Omitting entire scenes seems a radical move during previews, but no doubt it’s been done before. In its place (it seems) is a walk-on by dead Ben. Never a fan of the dead returning for an encore, I found this very jarring. The Lyons is a starkly realistic play and there’s really no room for ghosts.
It is comforting that the final scene takes place in the hospital room of the first act. We are reminded of the promise of that first hour. It must be said that The Lyons has a very satisfying ending. Surrounded by a different audience I might have actually leapt to my feet and whooped. The fact that the second act is (currently) in such disarray, should not stand in the way of seeing this play. Simply to see Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa spar and jar is worth the trip. It is safe to say that no one will ever play this role like Ms. Lavin does. She is simply remarkable. There are beautiful moments and resonating truths throughout the play. Quite frankly, The Lyons is like most of us; it could use a little improvement.