The Lyons roar at the dying of the light

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post Dispatch, August 18, 2013

“All interesting plays are about families,” says Nicky Silver, the playwright whose most recent work even has a surname for a title.

The relatives in “The Lyons”, the titular family, squabble and worse. But as the curmudgeonly patriarch lies dying, his wife and children show up at his hospital bedside — and everyone’s still on the attack, including the father, Ben. They’ve been at it so long, why stop now?

Bear in mind, this is a comedy — a comedy about a Jewish family meeting a crisis with its nerves, and its wits, honed to razor-sharp, blood-stained edges.

Also bear in mind, Silver pleads, that the Lyons family of the stage is not his own. One, he created. The other created him.

And although Silver’s father is no longer living, he was alive and well when Silver was writing the play. Furthermore, when family was together after the elder Silver’s death, “we got along much better and we ate a lot more than the Lyons did,” the playwright says.

The Lyons” won a lot of attention last year when it played on Broadway. (On Thursday, Max & Louie Productions opens it at COCA; in September, it opens in London.) The play garnered generally favorable reviews and the leading lady, Linda Lavin, was nominated for a Tony award.

The Lyons

In Max & Louie’s production of “The Lyons” by Nicky Silver, a nurse (Julie Layton) taking care of curmudgeonly Ben Lyons (Bobby Miller). Photo by John Lamb

Silver had never had a show on Broadway before — “I am the darling of little theaters,” he says with mock hauteur — and he attended almost every performance during its three-month run. “I felt like one of the cast, and very protective of them,” he said in a phone interview from New York, where he lives. “I wanted it to go well every night. I wanted to be there. It was very familial.”

When “The Lyons” closed in July 2012, Silver even wrote a light, affectionate piece that ran in the New York Times. “I tend to write plays wherein the characters feel isolated, separate from the world and alone,” he wrote. “I have never felt more connected and part of something than I did through this experience. The only real change between Broadway and off-Broadway is that the circle grew. The other changes are all microscopic.”

One of the most positive reviews came from the Times, which once famously described Silver as the “strange progeny of a coupling between Neil Simon and Edward Albee.” He can see why, but says that he “never aspired to Neil Simon’s kind of career — which is good, because it doesn’t exist any more. Of course there is a lot to be said for any joke you can quote after 50 years and still laugh at!”

He feels influenced by Albee and by English playwright Joe Orton — both pioneers of an absurdist, queer theatrical voice that Silver, along with others, modulated anew for the end of the 20th century.

People familiar with Silver’s work may not be surprised that “The Lyons” finds savage comedy in grief. In such plays as “Raised in Captivity”, “Fat Men in Skirts” and “The Food Chain”, Silver years ago established himself as a vibrant iconoclast, fooling with tradition in order to break it down. The surprise in “The Lyons” is that members of the Lyons family members have something — maybe not much, but something — to give to each other.

In that respect, they are worlds apart from the ice-cold Duncan family of Silver’s esteemed, darkly comic “Pterodactyls”, which the St. Louis Actors’ Studio will mount in November.

The Duncans — who drink heavily, give guns as wedding gifts and assemble a dinosaur skeleton in the living room — could make you flee to the Lyons in tears, begging for a hug.

Part of the difference lies in the illnesses that haunt both plays. Ben Lyons is dying of cancer; Todd Duncan, the dinosaur-assembling son in “Pterodactyls”, is dying of AIDS. When the play debuted, Silver said, “It was shocking to talk about AIDS. The president hadn’t talked about it in eight years.

“I do think the decision to make the Duncans so WASPY was in some sense to reflect the Reagans. They set the tone in the country as far as AIDS was concerned.”

Furthermore, he said, he lost someone he loved to AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, when the mysterious illness was known as GRID. That friend came from a distinguished family that never acknowledged that anything was wrong. “By the time I wrote ‘Pterodactyls’, I no longer felt sad,” Silver said. “I felt angry.”

Twenty-two years passed before he wrote “The Lyons”. (“I don’t write all that often,” he said. “I let plays sit in my head for a long time, write them quickly and don’t mess with them again until I have to.”) Now he suspects the rest of the difference comes down to the effects of age. Today, “I am much more forgiving than I used to be, much less angry,” said the writer who was born in 1960 in Philadelphia. “And at this age, I find I sympathize with the parents as much as the kids.”

The main recipient of that sympathy is the mother, Rita Lyons. She’s a warmer, more complex character than Grace Duncan. Rita at least allows us to consider that if she fails, it’s because no one could succeed at delivering all that’s been expected of her.

“We are programmed to believe that family is the all-nourishing source, and I don’t think that it is. I say, take nourishment wherever you can find it.

“‘Pterodactyls’ is a play about denial, and ‘The Lyons’ is about the failure to connect and the search for a way to (do so). I don’t know that the characters in ‘The Lyons’ forgive each other. But I forgive them.”