January 24, 2019

Humor and bitterness run in the family in ‘The Lyons’

Nicky Silver’s dark comedy “The Lyons,” now running at The Road on Lankershim in North Hollywood, depicts a family whose members are totally isolated from one another. The first act takes place in a hospital room, where Ben Lyons (James Handy) lies dying of cancer. His wife, Rita (Judith Scarpone), is leafing through House Beautiful magazine as she talks about redecorating their home once he is gone. Ben spews expletives in the face of her apparent indifference to his condition.

Soon, the couple’s grown children arrive, and they all begin to air the monumental issues that plague them. The alcoholic daughter, Lisa (Verity Branco), still is drawn to her ex-husband, while her brother, Curtis (Chad Coe), who is gay, avoids letting them meet the current man in his life. When Curtis reveals that his sister’s ex-husband hit her repeatedly, she takes revenge by telling everyone that his supposed boyfriends never existed, and that he is too terrified to actually have a relationship.

Rita exposes her bitterness at having spent her life married to a man she never loved, and her terror at the prospect of being alone, while Ben, who loved Rita, vents his anger at never having had his love returned.

Speaking from his home in New York, Silver said he wrote the play, which was produced on Broadway five years ago, after his father was misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009. 

“He died, actually, before it opened, but he didn’t have Parkinson’s disease. But that’s what got me thinking about mortality,” Silver said. “I was really [going] after a way to write the simplest play I could and just put four people in a room, in real time, and see what happens.”

The four people he has put together are Jewish, as is Silver, who believes the angst his characters experience is universal, but as Jews they reflect a cultural difference by communicating more freely.

“Having been in the room of dying people a few times in my lifetime, I would say that Jews — this sounds terrible, but I’m going to say it anyway — Jews tend to talk more,” Silver said. 

“Gentiles tend to sit on their feelings more, and maybe they explode finally, or fall apart finally. But in my experience — the Jews I’ve known, and being one — we’re pretty verbal about our feelings. So it makes for a more interesting play than people sitting around not talking about things.”

Silver said he also believes there is something singular about Jewish humor and that his affinity for comedy comes from his parents.

“Their ethnicity informed their sense of humor,” he said. “There is something in the Jewish identity, I think, where we often self-identify as sort of put upon in some way. And Jews find humor to get them through the worst of times. And I think that quality informs my work, in a way where gentiles find liquor to get them through the worst of times.”

The humor in the play, especially in the first act, verges on theater of the absurd because of the disconnect between someone in the hospital, dying of cancer, and the behavior of his family, which ostensibly has come for what may be a final visit. One would expect the situation to be somewhat sentimental, with emotional goodbyes, deeply felt interactions, bittersweet revelations and a heartwarming release.

“That’s the setup,” director Scott Alan Smith said. “It is anything but that. Nobody seems to care too much about the fact that he’s dying, and that’s where the comedy comes in. And that’s where the dark humor comes in.”

Smith added that there is no hope for this family. “That’s what I think Nicky is talking about with this play,” he said. “The family, which is usually the source of providing you with a sense of self and launching you into the world, is not the place that’s helping any of them. So it has to destroy itself for them to all move forward with their lives.”

And Silver explained that, after Ben dies, the remaining three do move in a healthier direction. “It’s not that the death of Ben liberates all of them,” the playwright said. “It puts them in a position where they have a choice. They can do nothing and molder in their own self-loathing, or they can take a chance. When confronted with the opportunity to move past a family that didn’t fulfill them and didn’t support their needs, they take the opportunity and take baby steps toward a new beginning.”

At first, Curtis makes an inappropriate, aggressive move on another man, gets beaten and ends up in the hospital. His mother and sister visit him, and Lisa says she has decided to offer some comfort to a dying man. Rita, meanwhile, is off to Aruba in an unconventional relationship, on her own terms.

In addition, Curtis reaches out to his nurse. “Curtis is inching toward having some kind of real connection, not a sexual, romantic connection, but he takes that risk, and he asks that nurse her name, and she sits down and they’re going to talk,” Silver said.

Beyond wanting his audiences to laugh at the dark humor in his play, “I want them to think about the traps we allow ourselves to stay in,” Silver said, “because that’s what I think the play is ultimately about. It’s about people who find a way out of the traps they’ve built for themselves.”

“The Lyons” is playing through July 16 at The Road on Lankershim in North Hollywood. For tickets and more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.