Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) is dying of cancer while his wife Rita (Linda Lavin) leafs through a home decoration magazine, deciding whether she should redo the living room in a Marrakech theme or in Chinese modern. Ben likes the room the way it is, but, as Rita observes, he “won’t actually be there to enjoy it.” His two children, who have not been informed of his illness, show up and are forced into on-the-spot final words. Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), their alcoholic daughter, recalls a moment when she was six or seven and playing on a jungle gym, but quickly realizes that she’s remembering a scene from Kramer vs. Kramer—“I loved that picture!” cries her mother. Curtis (Michael Esper), their gay son, tries to forgive Ben for his homophobia, but only gets a “Fuck you” from his father—that, and a grinning reminder that his grandfather Hilly would have hated him.
However, Ben is often drowned out by his histrionic family, and for most of the first act of Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, he sticks to lines like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” and “Go fuck yourself.” Like a giddy third grader who has just discovered how scandalous “bad words” can be, Mr. Silver is oddly proud of his language, often drawing attention to it. For example, Rita tells Ben, “You never used to curse … Now every other word out of your mouth is shit and fuck and cocksucker.” His response? “Go fuck yourself.” In the hands of David Mamet, the words “fuck” and “cocksucker” are poetic—here they are just transgressions so immature that only Mr. Lyons seems to find them outrageous. Just because you’re cursing onstage instead of onscreen doesn’t mean you’re any more sophisticated than an Adam Sandler movie.
The swearing, of course, is a minor point, but it’s part of a play that as a whole is far too transparently written. It is funny to watch Ben and Rita go back and forth, a little shocking to see how nonchalant she is about the whole cancer thing, but ultimately these don’t feel like real people; the dialogue is composed not for verisimilitude but for what will elicit the biggest reaction at any given moment. Admittedly, the second act suffers less from this problem, but that is due in part because it falls apart at the seams: after the death of his father, Curtis is beaten up by a man he tries to seduce and ends up in the same hospital bed as Ben. There’s something here about three generations of Lyons men, who all seem to have ended up alone, but Mr. Silver’s focus is so far gone by this point that we don’t care enough to bother to sort it out.
It’s a shame, too, because the cast is actually quite good. Ms. Lavin is hilarious with her unmistakable, unbearable nasal voice that somehow never becomes grating. And while Rita is nothing but a caricature of an obnoxious Jewish housewife, she embraces what is most effective about the part and manages to endear us to her. Mr. Latessa, too, doesn’t have much to work with, and yet his comic performance overcomes the shortcomings in Mr. Silver’s writing—it’s hard to picture another actor getting so much mileage out of repeating the same line over and over again.
The Lyons is an off-Broadway transfer, and I’d like to be able to say that it would work better in a small theater, that its subject matter lends itself to a more intimate atmosphere. But this is simply not true. It is just a bad play and one that should never have made it this far.