Cort Theatre, NYC
May 16, 2012
The Lyons was another production that presented an ensemble cast but somehow featured each member of that cast in a way that allowed him or her to shine. The cast included long time theatre veteran Dick Latessa and well known comedic actor Linda Lavin.
The story is tragically comedic, or hilariously tragic. It’s about a dysfunctional family that comes together in the final days of the dying father’s life.
The elderly father has a terminal disease but he and his wife didn’t want to worry their adult children, so they decided to not tell them about it until he was in his final stages. They show up at the hospital knowing that their father is ill, but they discover once they get there that he only has days to live.
This lack of communication is the least of this family’s problems. The daughter is divorced from an abusive husband with whom she longs to reunite (but discovers that isn’t possible once she learns he is seeing someone new – she discovers this when he brings his new lover to her father’s funeral!), one of her children is developmentally delayed (though she is in denial about it), and she is an alcoholic. The parents blame her drinking on her ex-husband but she discloses that she has been a problem drinker since childhood.
The stress of her father’s illness (and soon to follow death) causes the daughter to relapse into drinking and as a result she loses her AA sponsor. She gets a new sponsor who runs away with her mother the day of her father’s funeral!
There is also an adult son who is a failed writer. He has also failed to ever have a real relationship. He has invented two lovers over time but finally has to admit that he has never had a lover and the two he has spoken of over the years are fictional. The second of his pretend lovers however is a real person, but not his real companion. He is simply his neighbor about whom he has fantasized for years. The neighbor is a realtor, so the son arranges to have the realtor show him an apartment and then reveals to him that he has actually been stalking him for years and has invented a relationship between them in his imagination. This so disturbs the realtor that he physically attacks the son leaving him with a ruptured spleen.
But the parents (Lavin and Latessa) have their own issues. The father fell in love with Lavin’s character and she felt “trapped” and couldn’t avoid the romance. She married him but never loved him and eventually she came to hate him. He in turn hated their gay son. The father and mother spend his final days arguing (as a symbol of immortality he wants her to promise to never change the living room furniture, but she has always hated the furniture and assures him there will be new furniture shortly after his demise…this causes him distress and they spend his final days arguing about it).
After his death, the father who had been afraid of “Hell” (though his wife chastises him for this fear – she says, “We’re Jews; Jews don’t believe in Hell!” He answers, “Some do.” And she responds, “We don’t.”) is shown in a brief solo scene in the afterlife. He is alone, but content…not in Hell, and in fact, comforted to have been greeted by someone he didn’t recognize by sight but who he knew by smell to be his father. And other than that strange moment of metaphysics, the father is never heard from again (as might be expected since he is now dead).
In the end, the sister refuses to comfort her injured brother, but does decide to try to attract a dying man in the hospital. The mother, as mentioned earlier, runs away with the daughter’s new AA sponsor, and in lonely desperation, the hospitalized son (recovering from his physical altercation with his pretend boyfriend) reaches out for warmth and compassion from a nurse, who finally, reluctantly, gives them to him. And in their moment of connection, the play ends.
What is genius about this production is that the characters, by description, are not terribly likeable. And yet, when played by these skillful actors, they become people the audience finds humorous, tragic, at times likable, at times pitiable, and at times repugnant.
The father finds some freedom and relief in his final days by swearing…a lot! Apparently swearing was never a habit of his, but in the end, he takes to swearing incessantly, and this bit is something the audience finds amusing.
Lavin’s character, though selfish and cold, is also charming and funny. She knows that her new lover (who is younger than she is) only wants her for her money, and she only wants him for the excitement of being with someone new and doing something impetuous. She has never been in love and even still has no hope of finding love, only escape. And somehow, despite the sadness of it all, I found myself thinking, “Good for you.” Lavin plays the character with such pathos that the viewer wants her to find some measure of happiness, if only from a loveless affair.
The children are just lonely, chronically miserable people who appear to be too broken to ever be whole. Honestly, I didn’t find them as compelling as their parents.
Anyway, Lavin and the rest of cast demonstrate that one has to approach a character without judgment. Lavin can’t judge her character to be cold and heartless; she would have too much contempt for the character to make her interesting to the audience. Latessa’s character has to long for his wife’s love without Latessa judging him to be a pathetic loser, or his swearing won’t be the charming affectation of a dying man but rather just the bitter ramblings of a tragically unhappy person. Lavin and Latessa show that the actor must see the character as fully human (not just villainous or virtuous or humorous or unkind or perpetually angry…the character must be a multi-faceted person with whom the actor can share the experience of humanity) so that s/he can play the character in ways that aren’t just funny or just tragic, but that are as complex as human lives really are.
It’s a dark comedy, but both the darkness and the humor come from truth. Anyone who has felt desperate, unloved, lonely, hopeless, or overwhelmed knows that pain and humor, fear and fantasy, love and hate can be very close companions. The reality of the emotions make the story both funny and sad just as it makes it seem, for at least some of us, hauntingly familiar.