Tuesday, September 08, 2015

While Well-Enacted by AstonRep, 'The Lyons' Winds Up Only Halfway Decent -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Lyons
a recent play by Nicky Silver
Directed by Derek Bertelsen
AstonRep Theatre Company
at Raven Theater Complex
Thru September 27

"My life has been one big parade of disappointments. You're the Grand Marshal." 
-- spoken by the character Ben Lyons
    in Nicky Silver's The Lyons

Dysfunctional families have forever been a mainstay of dramatic (and comedic) theater.

Whether in classics like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, a modern masterpiece such as Tracy Letts' August: Osage County or any number of plays that can be seen in Chicago throughout any year, including a fine 2014 piece called The Humans by Stephen Karam, skilled writers have commonly made theatrical spectator sport out of kinfolk spewing vitriol at each other.

But as the above examples--and many others--attest, excellent and entirely distinctive plays can be forged from a seemingly familiar premise or scenario.

Thanks to a dirt cheap ticket offer on Goldstar, two excellent shows I saw last year by the AstonRep Theatre Co.--Wit and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, both directed by Derek Bertelsen, who also helms The Lyons--and the comfort, convenience and easy parking offered by the Raven Theatre Complex, the truth is I wasn't greatly concerned about subject matter in opting to attend on Saturday night.

Nor, in taking my seat while noting the well-rendered hospital room stage set, was I in any way put off by the following statement by playwright Nicky Silver--with whose previous work I was unfamiliar--in an interview with Bertelsen published in the show program:
"With my new play, I wanted to go back to basics -- to write something that was as simple stylistically as possible. And that meant putting a family in a room and having them talk to each other."
Though the play begins with a comedically preposterous bit--one hopes--involving a motormouth wife named Rita (well-played by Susan Fay) discussing her desire to re-do the living room while sitting at the bedside of husband Ben Lyons (a properly exasperated Scott Olson) as he is in the end stages of cancer that has ravaged much of his body, and also involves the seemingly "for theatrical purposes only" decision by the couple not to tell their two grown children about Ben's illness and likely imminent demise until they come to the hospital, the first act of The Lyons is rather entertaining, engaging and even identifiable.

I realize the need for playwright Silver to imbue the dramedy with some hyper-realism for entertainment purposes, but for the most part the dialogue between Rita, Ben, their divorced, alcoholic daughter Lisa (Aja Wiltshire) and gay son Curtis--who brings overt resentment of his derisive father and his own relationship issues--was believable enough for me to truly enjoy The Lyons in its own right.

I found it a bit odd that Silver makes a point of the Lyons' being Jewish yet barely references it throughout the narrative, and Rita--who openly (and not kindly) tells Lisa that she thinks one of her young grandkids may be slow--gets to be a bit much, but Act I is well-paced and there are some really great lines, like the one I quoted at top and Curtis' comment to his dying dad:

"I forgive you for making sure I knew I wasn't the child you wanted." 

As the lights came down for intermission, I jotted in my notebook that despite some familiar tropes and easy hysterics, the play felt fresh and even managed to shock.

With genuine anticipation, I was looking forward to what would unfold in Act II.

And then proceeded to be disappointed by it.

Rather than keeping the play focused on the four members of the family talking to each other, Silver splinters them up, with Lisa attending an AA meeting, Curtis going apartment hunting and Rita engaging in especially unseemly behavior given the circumstances.

The cheap theatrics and unwieldy complications Silver had avoided so well in Act I essentially--IMO--ruined Act II.

Though I didn't mind some changes of scenery simply for variance, and accept a bit of farce, I really wanted to see the same 4 characters carry on their discussion.

Which isn't to say I wanted everything tightly resolved with tears, hugs and forgiveness, but the chosen denouement really didn't do anything for me.

This is a shame because the actors--particularly Fay--continued to be quite good. (In addition to famous fighting theatrical families, the characters in this play also reminded me of the Jonathan Tropper book and recent movie, This Is Where I Leave You.)

So especially for the right price, The Lyons could still well be worth seeing for Act I--after which point I was thinking @@@@ or even @@@@1/2 could well be merited--and to see if you have a different take on Act II.

As it was, I was again impressed by AstonRep--Jeremiah Barr's set design was strong in a small space and in addition to the performers already named, Amy Kasper and Drew Wieland were quite good in small parts--and admired Bertelsen's direction, albeit in service to a script that took some turns for the worse.

Perhaps akin to what football fans in Detroit have long-known--not that the Bears have been much better--The Lyons are only good for a half.

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