Linda Lavin in The Lyons
(© Carol Rosegg)
Linda Lavin in The Lyons
(© Carol Rosegg)
Cancer and alcoholism are just two of the unlikely topics for Nicky Silver's brand of excoriating humor in The Lyons, now at The Vineyard Theatre. Directed with a keen eye for detail by Mark Brokaw, and featuring a superlative ensemble led by Linda Lavin, the play has audiences howling during its first act and, despite a few stumbles in its second half, may even provoke a tear or two from theatergoers before the curtain falls.

Silver brings his titular clan together at the hospital bedside of patriarch Ben (given a perpetual sneer of desperation by Dick Latessa), who lies waiting for the moment when he will pass away from the cancer that has riddled his body. He's not going quietly though: he's decided to let loose with any expletive that suits him, much to the chagrin of his wife Rita (Lavin), whose chief concern, as the play opens, is how she will redecorate their home after she's widowed.

Silver's ability to find both the humor and pain in this ghoulish scenario proves to be a hallmark of the piece. Lavin serves up the comedy with aplomb, and in a turn where each shift in vocal inflection and arching of a thin, sharply penciled eyebrow can speak volumes, she has the ability to make quips like "The chairs are the color of disgust. And the carpet is matted down with resignation." simply zing. Similarly, when the piece becomes more serious, her performance proves to have remarkable emotional depths.

Rita and Ben also have the ability to sting her adult children, who keep themselves at arm's length from their folks, for pretty obvious reasons. She has an assured knack for disturbing her daughter, Lisa (imbued with touchingly uncertain self-assurance by Kate Jennings Grant), the harried, divorced mother of two and a recovering alcoholic; while Ben is the primary nemesis for his son, Curtis (Michael Esper), a milquetoast fiction writer whom Ben has never forgiven for being gay -- and for dropping his given name, Hilly, which belonged to his grandfather.

After the family's recrimination and revelation-filled reunion at the hospital, it falls to Esper to navigate the least convincing section of Silver's play, where theatergoers see what the struggling writer's life is like when he's away from his family (as well as the depths of the scars he's been given in their care) as he looks at an unfurnished apartment with handsome real estate broker Brian (Gregory Wooddell).

In this scene -- along with the rest of the play -- Esper's performance, filled with self-effacing tics that make it seem as if Curtis is apologizing for his very existence, proves to be exceedingly moving. What surprises is the depths of anger Esper can also call upon in this scene and throughout the production.

Ultimately, when the action returns to the hospital, the play rights itself. Indeed, Silver ends the piece on an unexpectedly hopeful note (thanks in part to the work of Brenda Pressley as the family's nurse) -- one which seems to indicate that healing from even the worst familial dysfunction might be possible.