Theater: Max & Louie's 'The Lyons' Roars at COCA
A play about a dysfunctional Jewish family headed by a smothering, demeaning mother doesn’t exactly sound like new American theater, but in Nicky Silver’s “The Lyons,” currently playing at COCA, the story becomes a raw but empathetic examination of familial connection—or lack thereof—that manages to be simultaneously brutal and hilarious. With a first-rate cast and Wayne Salomon’s inimitable direction, the Max and Louie production packs an emotional—and laugh-filled—wallop.
The play opens up on a hospital room where curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed Ben Lyons (Bobby Miller) lies dying from cancer. His wife, Rita Lyons (Judi Mann), sits nearby thumbing through a Better Homes and Gardens, rhapsodizing on her new decorating plans for their home. After he persistently spurts, “I like the house the way it is,” she finally silences him with, “Well, you won’t be here,” spoken as casually as a comment on the weather, and good weather at that. With Mann’s perfect delivery, it’s a funny line, but it’s also savage.
(Editor’s Note: Bobby Miller is reportedly ill and will be replaced by director Wayne Salomon as Ben Lyons for the remainder of showings)
Soon after, the maladjusted adult children arrive. Lisa Lyons (Meghan Maguire) is an alcoholic on the wagon—or not—and Curtis Lyons (Charlie Barron) is a gay writer. Each has dragged cartloads of emotional baggage into the room which will be mercilessly unpacked: Every lie, every secret told in confidence to another, every shocking revelation, which grow into a tempest that swirls around the death bed of Ben, who may be going out, but he’s going out swinging…and cursing.
Judi Mann as the derisive matriarch of this muddled family gives a masterful performance with superb comedic timing. No one within reach of her tongue is spared as she gleefully hurls passive-aggressive insults as pointed and poisonous as blow darts, and even as she eviscerates her daughter with the suggestion that the grandson is “mildly retarded,” we somehow, inexplicably, like her just a little bit.
Bobby Miller as the dying father is Mann’s equal, delivering a performance as crisp as the sheets on his hospital bed. Each line brings with it decades of angry, frustrated befuddlement at the remains of his life and these people. Family, yes, but also utter strangers.
Meghan Maguire is skillful in her portrayal of daughter Lisa, who is struggling with much more than just alcoholism. She manages to bring some depth to a role that is mostly one-dimensional and shows some excellent physical work. Charlie Barron’s Curtis, although also written as a cardboard cutout character, is always interesting to watch, and his apartment scene at the start of act II—opposite Aaron Orion Baker—is flat out unnerving. It oozes creepiness. Rounding out the cast, Julie Layton does a fine job as a nurse who treats the bed-ridden Ben kindly, but when Curtis becomes the patient, not so much.
Director Wayne Salomon wields a deft hand, keeping the show moving at a brisk pace, the one-liners popping like firecrackers and the flow seamless. Justin Barisonek’s hospital set is apropos, and his stark white interior wall in the apartment scene adds to the isolation and tension of the situation. Kevin Reed’s costumes suited the characters, and Maureen Berry’s lights and Amanda Werre’s sound design were spot-on.
Silver is unapologetic about life’s metaphorical bed of roses being mostly about the thorns. All of the remaining family members do, however, manage to step toward making connections, sort of. Small steps for anyone else, but giant steps for the Lyons.