An Unhappy Family: Nick Silver’s The Lyons Brings Dark Comedy, Deathbed Confessions to the Vineyard

Linda Lavin triumphs as a dangerously self-involved Jewish-mother type

thelyons375 An Unhappy Family: Nick Silver’s The Lyons Brings Dark Comedy, Deathbed Confessions to the Vineyard

“The Lyons.” (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

In the mind’s eye, Linda Lavin is perpetually in that moment just after she has delivered a clever and cutting aperçu. She’s driving it home by raising an expensively shaped eyebrow, perhaps cocking her head, perhaps adjusting a ring, and usually jutting her tongue into her left cheek. Ms. Lavin, a star three decades ago as a blue-collar diner waitress, has become the onstage apotheosis of the well-to-do Jewish matron, her perfect I’m-not-saying-I’m-just-saying look putting a muscle-memory shiver of she’s-onto-me recognition into Jewish sons and daughters watching her across the footlights.

In Nicky Silver’s stingingly dark new comedy, The Lyons, which opened at the Vineyard Theatre last night, Ms. Lavin’s yiddishe kop runneth over.

Mr. Silver’s play is an emotionally complicated and deeply affecting portrait of a dysfunctional family in meltdown, troubled adult children and spiteful parents uniting as Dad prepares to die. Ms. Lavin’s accomplishment is that her Rita Lyons (the family name is Lyons, which means the play should more correctly, if less elegantly, be titled The Lyonses, a fact not really worth noting, except that Rita would) remains a recognizable and superficially lovable Jewish-mother type, even as you come to realize that she is the corroded, corrosive heart of this unhappy group, a vicious, self-involved narcissist who has destroyed her husband and children and will ultimately abandon them all to escape the negativity she has created.

(Also not really worth noting—except that, again, Rita certainly would—is that preview performances were held on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A shonde.)

Ms. Lavin was at her comic best last season in the Lincoln Center Theater debut of Jon Robin Baitz’s excellent Other Desert Cities, playing the alcoholic, Jewish earth-mother aunt to a Waspily repressed family of Palm Springs Reaganites. Over the summer, she played Hattie in the Kennedy Center revival of Follies, belting a memorable, characteristically arch “Broadway Baby.” She could have followed either production to Broadway this fall, and in either role she would have quite likely earned a supporting-actress Tony nomination. Sure, she already owns five of them, for supporting and leading roles, including one win, and she has all that Alice money—but, still, it was puzzling to hear she was instead committing to an off-Broadway premiere at the tiny Vineyard.

But then you see this play, which is smart and funny and moving and gives her a big, meaty, intriguing role to dig into.

The Lyons opens with Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) in a hospital bed while his wife sits nearby, seemingly attentive. He is dying, we quickly learn, and she is focused on redecorating the living room. “I like the living room,” Ben protests, angrily. “I know, dear,” Rita replies. “But I don’t. I hate it. I’ve always hated it.” The dialogue, witty and kvetchy, seems at first like companionable bickering and sensible change-the-subject avoidance, but it eventually becomes clear that this is the nature of their relationship: he’s furious, she’s entirely self-involved.