In the process of moving uptown from Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, Nicky Silver’s The Lyons (Cort Theatre) has shed the opening scene of its second act. As a result, the piece now feels more tightly focused on the pivotal member of the messed-up family from which it takes its title. Now distinctly in charge is domineeringly unhappy Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin), the wife and mother who has, for the entire length of her marriage, kept up the form of affection towards her husband and children while simultaneously withholding the feeling that should have filled the form. Nobody on the stage today can convey, more convincingly than Lavin, the dual-voltage effect of giving with one hand while taking back with the other. At the double-edged line reading, the demure gesture that seems to offer generously and snatch back in the same instant, she has no peer.
Rita has justifications for her ill-chosen fate, which Silver’s script makes clear, but he also makes clear that her initial acceptance of the ill choice has been the fatal step that led to the family’s hopelessly dysfunctional state. In the hospital room where, in the first act, Rita’s husband Ben (Dick Latessa) lies dying, decades of dysfunction get replayed, while he moans in anger or in pain as a nurse (Brenda Pressley) imperturbably readjusts his medication—and Rita, with equal imperturbability, tries to plan her post-marital life, provoking Ben to a rage that pain medication can’t curb. He gets further provoked when their kids arrive: fraught, ex-alcoholic daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a single mom struggling to raise her two kids (one perhaps mentally impaired) by the abusive husband from whom she’s separated, and son Curtis (Michael Esper), flamboyantly gay but hopelessly adrift, his employment, sense of vocation, and social relations all carefully maintained illusions.
The scene that formerly opened Act Two, omitted from the current Broadway version, focused on daughter Lisa and her further attempt to deal with her problems. But though Silver found cunning ways to work comic twists on Lisa’s situation, her problems remained conventional, which made cutting the scene a good idea. Lisa has made the sort of mistakes the fucked-up children of dysfunctional marriages conventionally make, so the solutions she strives to find for them become predictable.
Curtis’s problems, stemming from a solipsism that seems to grow naturally out of his mother’s eerie mix of nurture and detachment, are rather more complicated, and Act Two now focuses entirely on them. Hence we end up, in the final scene of the revised second act, back in the same hospital room, with the same nurse, and Curtis now recuperating from an incident he’s provoked, entirely relevant but way too complicated to explain in a review. While he’s there, Rita finds a temporary appeasement for her long-held frustrations, Ben finds the afterlife, Lisa finds (yet again) disappointment, and Curtis himself begins to evolve, slowly, a therapy for his family-bred disease. Making dysfunction functional is tricky, but not impossible.
Once the focal issue had been resolved, I imagine, everything in Mark Brokaw’s production of The Lyons became clearer, and hence easier to touch up or tighten for the move uptown. And, indeed, the playing on Broadway seems just that touch brighter and sharper. Yet it’s demonstrably the same show. A second viewing reveals, for instance, how much Latessa’s elegantly timed explosions have to do with the enormous laughs triggered by Lavin’s lines: This is comedy as teamwork, not solo bravura. Grant, deprived of her second-act monologue, actually appears more strongly centered, more intensely in character than she did downtown; here, one’s distinctly more certain that the frazzle involved belongs to the role and not the actress.
Esper, fittingly, has balanced Grant’s increasing strength by finding ways to make his character more eccentric, less smooth in his outward assurance; Curtis would now strike most gay men meeting him as a little stranger than your usual suburban mama’s boy. Pressley, as ever, is redoubtable and funny, and Gregory Wooddell now makes a much more specific portrait of the other party involved in the incident that Curtis provokes. Though still small in scope, The Lyons now feels, overall, like a distinctive small thing, with what seemed to be its quirks now revealed as its core. And with Lavin so forcefully present at that core, this study of death and misery takes on a party spirit—a social function that celebrates dysfunction.