Psychological warfare, family style

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday February 10, 2015
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Ellen Ratner and Jessica Bates play the wife and daughter<br>of a dying man (Will Marchetti) in Nicky Silver's dark comedy <i>The Lyons</i><br> at Aurora Theatre. Photo: David Allen
Ellen Ratner and Jessica Bates play the wife and daughter
of a dying man (Will Marchetti) in Nicky Silver's dark comedy The Lyons
at Aurora Theatre. Photo: David Allen

Sometimes redemption can come in the form of a Salisbury steak. If that sounds too simple, arriving there is no easy matter. It is, however, a laughing matter in Nicky Silver's The Lyons, which recently opened at Aurora Theatre.

Silver is a playwright who has made a career out of putting the fun in dysfunction, and The Lyons, his most recent play, shows us another family from hell " but this time around there is actually an escape hatch through which the characters approach with varying forms of thrill, fear, and in one case, metastasized cancer. Not so funny, you may think of that last escape clause, but with Rita Lyons at your bedside, her running commentary might make you eager to reach whatever hatch is at hand.

When the profanity-spewing Ben, spending his final days in a hospital bed, confides to his wife that he fears hell may be his afterlife destination, she accuses him of grandiosity. "Who are you to get into hell?" she asks, saying that his life was so small-time that his trespasses don't amount to a hill of beans. But mostly her bedside manner consists of flipping through decorating magazines for ideas for a living-room makeover. "You won't be there to enjoy it," she says, "but I hope you'd like it." That's Rita being nice.

Rita has summoned their two grown children, who long ago fled parental proximity, for the terminal news. Curtis is a gay man who has nearly convinced himself that his imaginary boyfriends are real. "How's your weight?" his mother asks the self-conscious Curtis as soon as he walks into the hospital room. Lisa is a divorced alcoholic with two children. One of Rita's first questions for her is whether she has had her youngest child tested yet to rule out retardation.

Silver's humor doesn't so much emerge in the form of stand-alone wisecracks as in contextual friction, which the Lyons have in abundance. Director Barbara Damashek's production keenly mines this vein of comedy as well as its occasional shifts into darker matters. There is a particular scene in the second act that involves the gay son Curtis and a handsome real estate agent that gets downright disturbing, but intriguingly so, and leads to a place where various redemptions can begin.

Ellen Ratner is perfection as the guilt-inducing Rita, always claiming no offence as she cheerily engages in her psychological search-and-destroy missions. Will Marchetti plays husband Ben with forceful irascibility that can give way to nostalgic reveries. As Curtis, Nicholas Pelczar is fussily and even aggressively erudite, while Jessica Bates plays the delicate Lisa with a willowy vulnerability. In the roles of a hospital nurse and the real estate agent, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Joe Estlack make important contributions despite briefer stage time.

You probably won't experience any family envy after spending an evening with the Lyons, which doesn't mean they aren't fine company in two-hour doses. In the mighty jungle of life, these Lyons may not know peaceful sleep at night, but they sure know how to put on a show when they are awake.

 

The Lyons will run through March 1 at Aurora Theatre. Tickets are $32-$50. Call (510) 843-4822 or go to auroratheatre.org.