Rita is the embodiment of narcissism. We meet her and her husband, Ben (Bobby Miller), in his hospital room. She’s busy flipping through magazines to plan how to redecorate their living room while he’s busy dying, a fact that doesn’t seem to concern her until nearly halfway through the play, and even then, it’s still all about her. Their two children have been summoned to dad’s deathbed, as of course they would be, but Rita has not bothered to tell them that he’s dying. In fact, until she called, they didn’t even know he was sick.
Of course, recovering alcoholic daughter, Lisa (Meghan Maguire) and underachieving son, Curtis (Charlie Barron) are shocked, but their mother tells them she and Ben “didn’t want to bother you.” Lisa is literally speechless. When she stammers out a memory to share with her dad (prompted by her mother, naturally) she “remembers” a time he was pushing her on the swings and she fell, but wait. . . . that was from a movie ("Kramer vs. Kramer," her mother notes, smiling). Curtis is less welcome than Lisa because Ben has always been ashamed that his son is gay, and furious that he changed his name from “Hilly” which was after Ben’s father, his own hero. Curtis has invented ways to compensate for Ben’s disappointment and to try to please his sort-of-doting mother that will shock you.
So, these are the Lyons, and indeed, the female is the more vicious of the species here. Oddly, Rita and Ben don’t have just a marriage of mutual contempt; Ben actually loves this monster, although even he doesn’t know why. Or if he does, it’s something he can’t articulate when he tries to explain his feelings to Curtis. Rita, on the other hand, tells her daughter that she never loved Ben, and she’s not sure when she began to hate him, but she does. I’d be surprised if you don’t hate Rita too, although sometimes you have to almost admire her chutzpah.
Rita thinks that no one is complete without a partner, and hopes Lisa will get back with David (unseen, but note the names) with whom she had two little boys before they divorced. Rita doesn’t really like her grandchildren, Chad and Jeremy (another name joke), and even believes Jeremy should be tested because he might be “retarded.” She has no compunctions sharing this with Lisa, who is horrified, and even Ben wants to know if she’s had the kid evaluated yet.
Clearly Ben is no saint either and hasn’t been much of a father, but he has been a good provider, as Rita’s clothing and designer bag will attest. He does worry about Lisa, but that’s likely more because she seems so needy, and he also can’t accept that she isn’t an alcoholic because her husband drove her to drink; rather, she that started on her own in the fourth grade. He seems willfully blind to the disastrous mess he’s made of his life, which is probably a survival instinct, except that impulse is no longer needed.
At the top of Act II, Curtis is checking out an apartment with real estate agent Brian (Aaron Orion Baker) and things turn profoundly creepy. (His dad used that exact word to describe Curtis.) Next thing we know, Curtis is in the hospital behaving childishly, refusing to eat and insulting the tough-but-tender nurse (Julie Layton). In due course, Lisa and Rita arrive, and when Curtis refuses to move back in with his mother (this idea came up earlier and both “children” turned her down), she drops a bombshell.
The first thing to know about this play is that it is hilarious. Granted, some of the laughter is kind of cheap because it comes from old people cursing—a lot—and if you’re easily offended, this play isn’t for you. Ironically, Rita is the one who doesn’t use scatological language and objects when others do. But there is a lot of wordplay among absurd people in ridiculous situations which, of course, is the basis for humor. Normally, it’s hard to pull real comedy out of a piece when there is nobody to like, and that is certainly the case here (except for the nurse). But laugh we do.
And we are shocked. I’ve never heard a collective gasp in a theatre like I did when Rita tells Curtis that she doesn’t think he has any talent as a writer. Rita is a stereotypical Jewish mother as far as criticism and coupling go (she’s trying to fix her daughter up with another patient who is dying of lymphoma), but she doesn’t believe her son hung the moon? Well, she does tell him she loves him, and to the extent she’s capable of love, she does. But her kind of affection really is like a lioness has for her cubs—she protects them when they’re babies, she feeds them, yet they aren’t so much a part of her that she can’t see flaws or separate from them. Rita’s aversion to being alone, really the only human weakness she lets us see, is just another way of expressing a need to be in charge, because without subjects, what is the point of a queen? We also might wonder why someone who has been so unhappy in her own marriage wants to see everyone partnered up. Misery loves company, perhaps?
The actors have little area to move around in the claustrophobic set , and except for one scene staged in front of a blank wall with a door, the whole play takes place in a small, carefully rendered hospital room designed by Justin Barisonek. These limitations don’t prevent Salomon from getting the most out of his actors. Miller has described his role as another of his “old Jew parts,” and it is true that he seems to have a monopoly on those lately, but there’s a good reason for that: Nobody does them better. I’ve only seen Judi Mann a couple of times and in much lighter material, but she is fine as Rita (though I do think she looks too young for the part).
Maguire and Barron are always excellent, and here, they have material, a director and terrific fellow actors to help them make the most of difficult characters. Maguire’s Lisa is all nervous tics and twitches. She looks good, but she doesn’t seem comfortable in her skin. Barron’s Curtis is the most pathetic of the group and, to me, the least funny because I just feel too damn sorry for him. Baker and Layton, both of whom generally play leads, are strong support for the Lyons family.
“Lyons.” Consider the name. The family is bound together by lies. They are tearing each other apart like jungle cats. They seem to live on the flesh of their prey, and they cull the “pride” by leaving the weak behind (watch for Rita’s last scenes with Curtis). Silver seems to be saying that family life is as treacherous as being a wildebeest in the Serengeti.
The play itself isn’t perfect. Silver includes a deleted scene in the printed version of the play, a long monologue by Lisa in which she gets a turn to explain herself and her life. He decided to cut it. Having read the script, I agree it wasn’t really needed, but then that omission thrusts us into Act II without a proper transition, or that’s what it feels like anyway. Then the scene we do see is too long and repetitive and doesn’t make much sense unless you impute meaning that you can only speculate about to Curtis’s actions. At bottom, the encounter between Curtis and Brian seems forced, primarily a way to get us back to the hospital, even though what happens isn’t without motivation.
Overall, though, I liked “The Lyons” a lot. Rita is a character I won’t soon forget, or any of her “pride,” for that matter, because for her and Ben, “pride” definitely connotes a writing an essay group, not a feeling.
NOTE: If you pay attention to local theatre news, you know that best friends Miller and director Wayne Salomon are working together for the first time in 26 years. They met back in the days of the Theatre Project Company co-founded by Fontaine Syer who became Miller’s wife for a while, and it was lovely to see her in the audience last night watching a small reunion of her influential company. And her “boys” (Wayne and Bobby) did her proud.
"The Lyons" runs through September 1st. For more information: maxandlouie.com.