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'The Lyons' The latest dysfunctional family on Broadway stage
By Irene Backalenick

Theatre critic Irene Backalenick covers theatre for national and regional publications. She has a Ph.D.in theatre criticism from City University Graduate Center. Her book "East Side Story--Ten Years with the Jewish Repertory Theatre" (based on her doctoral thesis) won a first-place national book award in history. Other awards in journalism and theatre criticism include a New York Times Publishers Award (received while writing for The New York Times). Her professional organizations include the American Theatre Critics Association, Association for Jewish Theatre, Outer Critics Circle (on the executive board), Drama Desk, Actors Equity Derwent Committee, and the Connecticut Critics Circle e-mail: ireneback@sbcglobal.net  Web : www.nytheaterscene.com  

The latest dysfunctional family—a Jewish family, as it happens—is now on the Broadway stage. It is playwright Nicky Silver’s newest contribution—“The Lyons”—directed by Mark Brokaw.

We wonder that this particular play is listed as a comedy. Comedic lines surface only occasionally, delivered in rapier-style from the indomitable Linda Lavin. And though the audience laughs, the laughter seems more out of nervousness than a response to humor. The story itself feels sad and pointless. People despair, die, or struggle through the day. Comedy? No.

The plot deals with a family surrounding a father who lies dying in his hospital bed. The mother (Lavin) sits flipping through a style magazine and wishing her husband would get on with the business of dying. She is depicted as stylish, self-absorbed, and shallow---a mean-spirited, stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish wife/mother. Then the alcoholic daughter arrives and finally the son, who is gay. Both children are lost souls. Every one is there at bedside, perhaps out of a sense of what is appropriate, not a sense of closeness. Ultimately the father dies and the mother promptly abandons her children as she announces her plans for a new life. Thus the children are forced to make lemonade out of lemons, timidly reaching out for their own new beginnings.

What’s it all about, Alfie? The message, it would seem, is that life works out well for some people, badly for others--the luck of the draw. You make the best of your circumstances, with possibly good returns if you reach out to others. This hardly seems an earth-shaking insight, a new exploration of man’s place in the universe. It’s been said before--with better dialogue, better characterization, better plot--in any number of earlier dramatizations.

Yet there is one saving grace to “The Lyons.” Its second act—which deals with the gay son and a man he hopes to seduce—is an affecting little play all in itself. Surprises tumble upon surprises, and tension escalates powerfully as the two men spar. Michael Esper (as the son) and Gregory Wooddell (as his target) rise to the challenge, working off each other beautifully. As to the play’s other performers, Dick Latessa gives a solid performance as the dying father, and the highly-touted Linda Lavin comes through as might be expected. She has the unfailing comic touch--lifting her eyebrows, rolling her eyes, and capturing her audience.

But the show’s good direction and performances seem hardly worth the effort. We had hoped for more, given the track record of this gifted playwright. We are still wondering—what’s it all about, Alfie?


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  • Irene Backalenick

    Dick Latessa and Branda Pressley

    Linda Lavin

    Kate Jennigs Grant and Michael Esper

    Michael Esper and Gregory Wooddell Photos by Carol Rosegg

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