The Lyons are a family whose dinner invitation you may seek to avoid.
The straight-talking patriarch Ben (Will Marchetti) spews “What the fuck?”s and “God damnit”s from his hospital bed, unrelenting in bitterness and openly critical of his family even as cancer leaves him with just a few days left of life. Meanwhile, his wife Rita (Ellen Ratner) is similarly strong-willed, and her guilt trips and well-meaning expressions of concern — while often incredibly entertaining — leave neither husband nor offspring safe from attack.
“The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s Broadway play, is now featured at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. With a caustic wit, the production presents the family’s dysfunctional relationships and the havoc they wreak on the two full-grown but emotionally stunted Lyons children. The small cast and tiny venue create an intensely personal atmosphere for the audience. The result is an often aggravating, occasionally funny and gratifying exploration of the emotional scarring within a household that can endure for years.
Nicholas Pelczar nails his performance as Curtis, the family’s only son, who not only chafes under his father’s disapproval of his sexual orientation but also blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in order to remedy overwhelming feelings of social isolation. His sister, Lisa (Jessica Bates), is troubled, too. After leaving an abusive marriage, the news of her father’s impending death prompts her to suffer a drinking relapse for the first time in years. Even while portraying a woman at the brink, Bates’ teetering, Jim Beam-wielding Lisa induces guilty laughter from the audience. That is one of the play’s most notable accomplishments: its ability to make you laugh when you feel as though you shouldn’t.
The dark humor continues. In the small hospital room that makes up the set of the play’s first half, the news of Lisa’s violent marriage is but the first in a series of revelations to rock the family. As more personal details come to light, the audience experiences both humor and horror upon seeing the family’s brokenness. Particularly brilliant is a bit in which Rita reveals to her stunned husband that she bought a gun years earlier after finding out that he had thrown away her beloved Judy Garland album. “It was a whim,” she pans. The audience explodes.
Ratner’s comedic timing, honed by spending time among such stars as Sarah Silverman and with guest appearances on shows including “Frasier” and “Seinfeld,” stands out among a strong cast, and at times, it carries the production.
While the dark humor does lighten an otherwise intense drama, the family’s back-and-forth antics can be trying at times. The relentless bickering allows for funny moments — particularly in the form of Rita’s excessive honesty — but experiencing the first half of the play is akin to being cloistered at a family reunion with your most stubborn, opinionated and emotionally unstable relatives. Basically, there’s a lot of yelling, and the “cranky old married couple” shtick becomes tiresome quickly.
After the intermission, however, the play picks up. The script delves deeper into the stories of individual family members, and where the first hour felt static and repetitive, the narrative suddenly comes to life. The audience learns more about Curtis’ past, and with it come questions of responsibility and self-reliance. The remaining Lyons struggle under the weight of their individual burdens, and the question of how much energy and sacrifice each member of the family owes to the others presents a dilemma for the audience to contemplate alongside the characters.
Ultimately, the play depicts a group of adults who struggle to take their lives into their own hands. Renewal, for the Lyons, is a process of extricating the individual from a toxic family dynamic. It involves accepting the limits of what one’s relatives can provide and forgiving those who never expressed contrition in the first place. Above all, it celebrates finding humor in moments of cruelty, disappointment and failure. Viewers shouldn’t expect a warm and cuddly experience, but the play’s conclusion does leave the audience with a sense of uneasy optimism.
Contact Grace Culhane at [email protected].