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Looking though they do like conventional realistic comedies, Nicky Silver’s plays have, to a critic, a reassuring oddity. Never exactly about what they start out being about, they tend to twist, or more often to hop arbitrarily, away from the straightforward narrative you initially thought they were conveying. Although Silver’s plays rarely break the frame of the contemporary reality in which they live, they shift focus to reveal, abruptly, wholly unexpected facets of their characters. With equal unexpectedness, they distribute rewards and punishments. And they cap the entire disorienting display by ending what has mostly consisted of harsh, sardonic satire on a quasi-optimistic tone of quiet, philosophic resolve, like a bagful of quarreling cats that has suddenly voted to live in peace and cautious hopefulness.
Silver’s latest play, The Lyons (Vineyard Theatre), presents his non-pattern way of patterning in full bloom. The Lyons family seems to be the standard-issue dysfunctional middle-class Jewish-suburban family of several thousand previous Broadway and Off-Broadway dramas with comic relief, or comedies with poignant relief. Mother Rita (Linda Lavin), daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), and son Curtis (Michael Esper), cluster around the hospital bed where dying dad Ben (Dick Latessa) will spend his last hours, with no-nonsense African-American nurse (Brenda Pressley) in discreet attendance. You know immediately that dad will die and that all the family’s rivalries, secrets, and resentments will spill out over his deathbed and then over the aftermath of his passing. But this is the Nicky Silver edition of such a play; the expected things happen here, but happen quite differently.
For instance, the play holds a sixth character, a real estate broker (Gregory Wooddell), whose presence in the action has nothing to do with any of the Lyons family wanting to sell, buy, or rent an apartment. He’s there, it ultimately turns out, to visit an unpleasant judgment on one of the Lyonses whose unwise life-choices have led in a risky direction. If the judgment seems unnecessarily vindictive, that’s because it stems partly from the realtor’s own feelings of inadequacy; minor characters sometimes make unwise life-choices, too.
Although this segment of the story has nothing in particular to do with Ben’s final illness and death, it allows Silver to retain the hospital-room set, complete with nurse, well after Ben himself has passed on, as the place where matters of inheritance, usually dealt with at home or in a lawyer’s office, can be resolved. The settlement of these matters, entirely arbitrary and utterly unjust, is the play’s most delicious surprise, since it comes from an aspect of Rita’s character that seems, simultaneously, the exact opposite of her habitual behavior—an unconventional act by a woman who has spent her whole life doing the conventional thing—and the inevitable consequence of her nature. Like Silver’s dramaturgical tactics, the widowed mother’s decision feels, at once, both wholly out of left field and totally appropriate.
Lavin’s performance might be what holds these contradictory elements in perfect balance. Blessed with the magic power to make every moment onstage embody truth, she’s a purveyor of gigantic nuances, comic or tragic as needed: Her tiniest gestures seem epic; her minutest shifts of vocal tone ring out grandly. (I’m still cracking up, four days later, over the way she says, “It was a whim.”) Esper comes nearly as close as she does to balancing his role’s contradictions. Anguished and blasé, sticking to his wrongheaded ways with heroic obstinacy, Curtis is a fastidious accident waiting to happen. You can measure both artists’ success by the extent to which you feel not only empathy but comprehension for their ruthlessly contrarian characters.
Although Silver’s preoccupying focus, not for the first time, is on mother and son, Grant and Latessa, given shallower materials to work with, skillfully offer enough sidelights and shadows to make their less fully written characters seem equally deep. Latessa in particular has long since proved himself capable of meeting greater challenges; it’s high time someone wrote him a more substantial role than leading lady’s long-suffering husband. Pressley handles her secondary tasks here with her customary aplomb; Wooddell navigates his single scene, nearly as tricky in its complexity as the major roles, with considerable finesse. Director Mark Brokaw’s light touch, not suited to every playwright’s approach, clearly harmonizes well with Silver’s.