They have tongues like razor blades; it's almost impossible for the four members of the Lyons family to open their mouths without inflicting flesh wounds. Yet there can be something mesmerizing about watching laceration, and Nicky Silver's acid comedy The Lyons, which currently is receiving a high-luster polish from Max & Louie Productions, is poisonously entertaining. Act One, when the clan gathers in a Manhattan hospital room as patriarch Ben approaches death, is the fastest, funniest 50 minutes onstage in recent memory.
Ben's long-suffering wife Rita, portrayed with crass elegance by Judi Mann, is a ravishing Gorgon, eager to devour anyone in her path (including her own children). Rita would have us believe that she's the victim here. "This cancer eating away at you has put you in a terrible mood," she scolds Ben (Bobby Miller, an acting gift that keeps on giving with every new riposte). Their daughter Lisa (the combustible Meghan Maguire) is an alcoholic who still yearns for the ex-husband who used to beat her. Their homosexual son Curtis (the ever-deft Charlie Barron) is a blithe mediocrity. "My life is one long parade of disappointments," a dying Ben tells the son he can neither stand nor understand, "and you're the grand fucking marshal."
Silver delights in dazzling us with his verbal dexterity. Listen to Rita describe the living room she can hardly wait to redecorate. "I look at the sofa," she tells Ben. "I know it was cream when we bought it. Now it's just some washed-out shade of dashed hopes. The chairs are the color of disgust." This is a writer preening. But in Act Two The Lyons takes a risky U-turn. In stark contrast to Act One, where the dialogue is brutally candid, now nearly everything that is said is a lie. As Curtis is shown a vacant studio apartment by a nondescript real estate agent (Aaron Orion Baker, admirably ordinary), it takes the viewer a few minutes to realize that Silver has put the lacquered comedy behind him in order to reach for something subtler and sadder. No longer is The Lyons merely trying to be laugh-a-minute glib; Act Two is tinged with rue. Silver's characters yearn to communicate, but their failed efforts border on despair.
The Lyons wraps up back at the hospital as each of the three surviving Lyons strives to connect with others outside the family. Silver seems to want to end his dark comedy on a positive note. But an alternate view is that after Ben departs for a happier environ, the play feels rudderless. In Act One, the dying patriarch functions as a kind of Greek chorus in his own tragedy. When Ben's seductive humor is gone, the emptiness of these lives is fully revealed. Rita remains a Gorgon; Lisa remains myopic; Curtis remains inept. Even his attempt to communicate with a no-nonsense hospital nurse (the beautifully brusque Julie Layton) feels tacked on.
But the production delivers an evening of finesse. The snappy, stylish clothes from costume designer Kevin Reed stand out in stark contrast to Justin Barisonek's antiseptic hospital room. Director Wayne Salomon cleverly solves some potential problems. For much of the evening, a huge hospital bed consumes more than a third of the playing space, yet the production feels fluid and natural. In the first scene of Act Two, only a sliver of downstage space is available for the vacant studio apartment. Salomon responds by audaciously (and effectively) staging the scene with both actors in profile.
Perhaps the most significant thing Salomon gets right is the curtain call. All four Lyons share the final bow together, reaffirming that the Max & Louie production was conceived as an ensemble piece. As written, the Lyons lead isolated lives of noisy desperation. But as acted, Charlie Barron, Meghan Maguire, Judi Mann and Bobby Miller make for a marvelously interwoven unit.