Chicago Theatre Review
All in the Family
The Lyons – Aston Rep
As Ben lies in his hospital bed facing death, his wife Rita relaxes in a chair, facing away from him, casually browsing through a home decorating magazine and glibly tossing out ideas for remodeling the living room. Ben’s adult daughter Lisa has confessed to getting back together with her abusive husband and his gay son Curtis admits that the man he’s living with is imaginary. Is it any wonder that the doomed patriarch can’t control his anger and is screaming at his family, using language that would make a sailor blush?
Nicky Silver, whose work includes “The Food Chain,” “Pterodactyls” and “Fat Men in Skirts,” has labeled his plays dark farce. Writing with a ferocity that often provokes chills, Silver’s been compared with Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and early Christopher Durang. His characters appear to be living in the real world but definitely within their own set of rules. At best, each character is discontented with his life; at worst, these folks are just plain pissed off, angry at everyone and everything around them. You wouldn’t want to spend very much time with any of these people because they’re so totally likable.
“The Lyons,” like most of Nicky Silver’s plays, initially played Off Broadway. However, this is his only play to finally make it to Broadway, in 2012. Although it didn’t win any awards, the play garnered notice and nominations from the Drama League, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk and a Tony Award nomination for Linda Lavin, as Best Actress in a Leading Role. New York critics were mixed in their reactions, but one reviewer called the play “deliciously dark and hilarious.”
The play might be suitable on a double bill with Theater Wit’s “Bad Jews,” what with all the acid-drenched dialogue and vicious attacks in both. Rita Lyons criticizes, complains, makes unsolicited, uncensored pronouncements and, in general, irritates and angers everyone around her. Instead of falling apart at her husband’s impending death, she sits nonchalantly passing the time in Ben’s hospital room reading magazines and suggesting that he really “should be more positive.” She’s, in fact, “forgotten” to inform her grown children about their father’s illness, until now, not wanting to “bother” them. Also, Rita was busy with a backgammon competition and just didn’t have the time. She asks her alcoholic daughter Lisa if she’s ever had her young son tested, because Rita thinks he may be “slightly retarded.” Then she berates Curtis for being “sad and unforgiving” in his writing career and because of his gay lifestyle. No one and nothing is safe. While the entire first act plays out entirely in Ben’s hospital room, the second act is divided into three scenes that finally come full circle, returning to the same sick bay.
Derek Bertelsen has directed his production with unbridled energy and precision. The cast seems entrenched in their world, the kind of dysfunctional family situation Silver intended, each harboring enough glib disassociation and venom to make this black comedy sizzle. Susan Fey capably holds court as Rita, the callous queen, a black widow-to-be, waiting for life to begin all over again, after a 40-year loveless marriage. While her lack of sympathy attitude won’t win Rita any fans, audiences may eventually come to understand how she became this caustic, uncaring woman. Within Ms. Fay’s performance there’s a tiny bit of sadness that emerges every now and then, keeping Rita from becoming simply a one-dimensional bitch. Matthew Harris plays Curtis with sensitivity and a modicum of sadness and humanity that keeps him from coming off as just another bitter queen. Mr. Harris’ scene in the empty apartment with real estate agent, Brian (smartly played by Drew Wieland) opens yet another door in this boy’s emotional domicile, giving audiences a unique view of how loneliness and self-loathing has driven Curtis to desperation.
Aja Wiltshire is beautiful and composed as Lisa, the alcoholic divorced mother of two young boys and the daughter who continues to disappoint her mother. She works hard to hold it together as Lisa observes her father fading away in a hospital bed, all the while fielding barbs and criticisms hurled at her by her mother and brother. As theatergoers see and hear more from Rita, they’ll understand some of the motivation behind Lisa’s drinking, compounded by her on-again, off-again relationship with an abusive ex-husband. Ms. Wiltshire is able to keep her calm until she finally snaps. The inclusion of a later scene at Lisa’s AA meeting (cut from the Broadway production), while somewhat superfluous, does offer another insightful look at the young woman, unencumbered by her family. Scott Olson is appropriately sarcastic and acerbic, particularly with his wife, although he’s not above letting the expletives fly with his two children. Mr. Olson, however, seems a bit too energetic for a man dying from cancer, but his rancor is certainly well-directed and understandable. And, always a delight in any play, Amy Kasper makes a pleasant, business-like nurse. She’s especially given some choice moments toward the end of the play enabling audiences to see that she fits beautifully into Silver’s world of the hot-tempered and ill-humored.
AstonRep’s latest offering lives up to its mission of creating a theatrical experience that will spark discussion long afterwards. Nicky Silver’s dark comedy is very adult, unabashedly funny and thought-provoking. Audiences will walk away from this production, shocked, amused and definitely entertained. Perhaps, however, they’ll recognize someone they know among these six characters, as well; but they’ll be very happy, at least, that their surname isn’t Lyon.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 27-September 27 by the AstonRep Theatre Company at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-828-9129 or by going to www.astonrep.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.