by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Starring Linda Lavin, Dick Latessa,
Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper
Vineyard Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

While watching The Lyons by Nicky Silver at the Vineyard, I was clocking the heartiness with which the audience was laughing—while at the same time clocking the triggers for laughter. And I wondered, I just wondered, if the play would be as funny with a lower Octane cast.

               Now, let me state the obvious before you do: Of course, the better the comedy timing and instincts of your cast, the funnier a comedy is going to be; and of course bad casting can ruin a comedy. But I was thinking of my friend and colleague Peter Filichia’s opinion about the musical of The Producers (a show I unabashedly adore). He predicted that it would fail to play as well when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left the company—that what seemed foolproof was far from it. And indeed, that show had its terrifying trial by fire when British actor Henry Goodman was cast as the first to replace Lane and was fired after a month. I got to see the performance recently, via bootleg video. I was curious enough to seek it out because Goodman is a headliner in the UK, about whom I’d never seen nor heard a breath of impropriety or unprofessionalism (among many other credits, he created the role of Billy Flynn in the London production of the revived Chicago, in 2007 very successfully assayed Tevye in Fiddler in the West End and in 2010 debuted the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby in the play version of Yes Prime Minister). I had to see what went wrong for myself. And what went wrong, to oversimplify, was this: He couldn’t camouflage the musical’s shortfalls by dint of persona. To some degree he wasn’t directed properly, wasn’t clued into the notion that for all Max Bialystock’s being a titanic low comedy role, he needs to be played with the energy of a sprite; so Goodman was never able to access charm, and it kept his performance earthbound. But that aside…he was simply, alchemically, not the guy, and in a way that goes deeper than miscasting. Working his heart out like and delivering like an old pro, an energetic, enthusiastic, committed, gifted, intelligent performer—but he never attained lift-off; rather, you got used to him after a while, and made peace with the compromise. But oh, the missing laughs. Oh the missing soul. Oh, the shocking realization that, just as he wasn’t supporting the material…the material wasn’t supporting him.

               And, to return to the subject at hand, Nicky Silver’s The Lyons: I found myself viewing it from a dual stance. Clearly it was going down big with the audience. But I was replaying the actual words being spoken after I heard them, and thought, this really isn’t self-sufficiently funny, like the best of Neil Simon and Herb Gardner, like the libretti for Forum and Guys and Dolls. This is stuff that could sink easily. But there’s Linda Lavin, as Rita Lyons, a controlling, insensitive wife, sitting in a hospital room next to the bed of her husband Ben, dying of cancer, suffering her relentless commentary about things he doesn’t care about—and played by Dick Latessa. If Lavin knows how to do anything, it’s not only how to inflect a line for the sharpest sense of irony (whether it be the character’s conscious irony or the author’s dramatic irony), but how to pull an editorial expression in the aftermath, as if to say, “Talk about absurd!” or “What do you think about that?” or “I know, but what can you do?” And it’s not mugging; it’s nuance that fills in the holes. As for Latessa—while he’s never been a comic who played the Catskills, he’s arguably the New York theatre’s most reliable go-to character man for fathers of all types, and he has Borscht Belt in his blood. Leave it to him to find the perfect pitch for his opening line (“What the fuck are you talking about?”) and then find endless ways to vary “Fuck you.”

               I say this because Mr. Silver’s dark comedy, about a highly dysfunctional family, doesn’t seem to illuminate anything about dysfunctionality, nor have—I hate to put it this way, because I don’t mean to imply that a play must have an educational mandate—anything particular to teach us about the art of coping. Each of the four main characters is profoundly unhappy—we also meet the grown children, a gay son, Curtis (Michael Esper), a failed writer who “creates” the lovers no one ever sees him with; and daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a recovering-lapsed alcoholic with her own delusions about bad relationships (i.e. that she deserved to be hit by her ex-husband)—and none of them seem to care for each other very much. At best, the play seems a treatise on the folly of building your life around unattainable illusions. Oh, and I should add: as characters they aren’t terribly pleasant company, though I get the feeling that Mr. Silver has affection and compassion for them—for after making them endure soul-sinking disappointments, he leaves each with the smallest shred of genuine promise to cling to.

               But the characters come in the guise of that cast (add Brenda Pressley as a savvy nurse and Gregory Wooddell as a real estate broker)—and under the direction of Mark Brokaw. So the question becomes—so what if this isn’t a play for the ages? Or even a play that will hold up later on, somewhere else, without similar SuperComedy performers in its service? It’s here in NY now, with this cast, making it look far better than it is. Doesn’t that make it worthwhile?

               After a fashion, certainly—there’s a lot to be learned, and a lot of joy to be had, from watching comedy experts at work. And if the curtain call meter at the performance I attended is anything to go by (and it can be), sometimes that’s even enough

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