In Nicky Silver's The Lyons, comedy and tragedy are as inextricably linked as the two heads of conjoined twins; where one turns, the other follows. There is no joke that isn't soaked in hurtful battery acid, and rare is the moment of unabashed sorrow that isn't tempered with an acrid laugh line.
Black comedies about dysfunctional families are a staple of American theater, and The Lyons is unique only because of the depths it goes to expose hearts of darkness. There are more depressing themes than there are central characters: Cancer, domestic abuse, alcoholism, homophobia, mental illness, and loveless marriages factor into the play, which is enjoying its Southeastern premiere courtesy of the Women's Theatre Project.
Kevin Reilly plays Ben Lyons, the family patriarch, languishing in a hospital bed in the final days of a losing battle with cancer. Jessica K. Peterson is his wife, and as the show opens, she's sitting by Ben's bed and browsing a furniture catalog, openly discussing options for remodeling his beloved living room once he kicks the bucket. He unleashes strings of profanity at her; this is a new thing, apparently, with his illness allowing him free reign to speak his mind. As he listens to his wife prattle on, it's clear that death can't come soon enough.
The Lyons, through December 22 at the Willow Theatre at Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton; $25; 561-347-3948; womenstheatreproject.com.
Then his children turn up — Jacqueline Laggy's Lisa and Matthew Korinko's Curtis — whose own problems are manifold. It's the first they're told of their father's cancer; their parents "didn't want to burden" them with information that might have proven helpful months earlier.
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For me — though not necessarily for many in the audience — this is around the time in the show when the laughs start to dwindle and the experience becomes increasingly unpleasant. Once the hilarious shock of the parents' profane bickering wears off, we're left with the reality of loveless people whose lives have cratered into disrepair. This is the tone director Genie Croft most seems to convey, and there's frankly nothing funny about it.
The second act offers something of a reboot, set a week later in a vacant studio apartment, where Curtis is inspecting the property with a realtor played by Clay Cartland. Their tête-à-tête bristles with sexual tension between the two actors, who play the scene like magnets attracting and repelling before ending in a nasty confrontation. After this protracted scene, the play takes a completely unnecessary narrative detour to the afterlife; then we're back in the hospital room again, this time with Curtis propped up in a bed. But the entire affair feels awkwardly out of place and dramaturgically inelegant, like a one-act sandwiched between a proper full-length play.
These challenges are difficult to overcome, and the Women's Theatre Project struggles to bring fluidity to the playwright's unorthodox choices. There is much to be admired about the cast, especially from Cartland, who displays a heretofore unseen intensity in his small supporting role, and Korinko and Laggy, who help create the only characters in the show who are genuinely worth caring for. Reilly accurately conveys the gesticulations of a dying man — wheezing, sighing, groaning, clutching his body in discomfort. But while Peterson relentlessly inhabits an archetypal character — the meddlesome Jewish mother — she does so to a fault. Aside from one isolated scene, she lacks the soft edges necessary to temper her character's abrasiveness, and she's so loud and rough that when her character finally exits the stage, it becomes a more breathable place.
Such heaviness dilutes the short-lived charms of The Lyons, leaving us with a dark comedy that is too much dark and not enough comedy.