Death should not be proud, as the poet John Donne warned, but it certainly can be shameless. In Nicky Silver’s new play, “The Lyons,” the patriarch of a Jewish family, about to succumb to terminal cancer, suddenly vents the hatred that he feels for his wife and children, prompting them to uncork their own vitriol at him and at each other. Directed by Mark Brokaw, the dark comedy opens next Tuesday evening at the Vineyard, with Linda Lavin (a Tony Award winner for “Broadway Bound”) and Dick Latessa (a Tony Award winner for “Hairspray”) heading the cast.
“The Lyons” begins in the hospital room of Ben (Latessa), who is being visited by his wife, Rita (Lavin), their daughter, Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) and their son, Curtis (Michael Esper). Ben’s cruel, foul-mouthed jibes at his wife are matched by her taunting him about his imminent demise. Meanwhile, neither is sympathetic to their recovering alcoholic daughter or to their son, who is grappling with his homosexuality. As long-buried secrets come to light, the family members realize how much they have been emotionally shackled together, and what it will take for them to free themselves.
Silver’s seventh play to premiere at the Vineyard, “The Lyons” continues the playwright’s penchant for mining shocking humor from outlandish dysfunctional families. In plays like “Pterodactyls” and “Raised in Captivity,” both of which premiered in the 1990s, Silver depicted such families ripping apart at the seams. While most of his plays have featured non-Jewish characters, “The Lyons” may be Silver’s most Jewish play since “The Food Chain,” a 1995 play in which Phyllis Newman played an over-the-top Jewish mother who did more harm than good by volunteering to staff a crisis hotline.
Silver, whose work scholar David Savran has compared to that of other gay playwrights like Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton and Christopher Durang, grew up in a Jewish family in Philadelphia. His mother, he said, “acquiesced” to his father’s desire for Jewish ritual. “My father wanted my mother to light Shabbos candles, but he was at work and she didn’t know the Hebrew blessing,” Silver recalled. “So the first time she had to light them by herself, she just muttered ‘Jewish, Jewish, Jewish,’ thinking that no one would know the difference.”
What makes “The Lyons” compelling, the playwright told The Jewish Week, is that “there’s no safe place in the room. You try to be on someone’s side, and they reject you.” Because he is dying, Ben just wants to “spew” the truth, and this provokes the other characters to do the same. “They’ve sat on their feelings for 50 years. The clock is ticking.” Seeing his plays, Silver noted, is like “watching the Three Stooges until something shocking and horrible happens.”
By the end of the play, the surviving family members have forged human connections outside the family. “They have all learned to look for something a little simpler and a lot more rewarding,” Silver said. “A bit of real and honest contact is more nourishing than a long-term relationship that’s based on a fraud.”
“The Lyons” runs through Oct. 30 at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Wednesday to Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $70, call the box office at (212) 353-0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org.