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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | The curtain comes up at the Cort Theatre, and there sits Rita Lyons. With formidable gams folded, she occupies a standard issue hospital room chair and works it like a throne.
Broadway veteran prepping for fall cabaret run
Thumbing through a magazine while breathlessly firing off zingers, Rita controls all she surveys — and at this particular moment, the authoritative matriarch’s steely gaze is focused on the task of selecting a new design for her long-neglected living room.
Never mind that three other objects are in desperate need of attention. Her husband, hooked up to an IV drip to dull the pain, is dying in the bed next to her — and her grown son and daughter, soon to arrive for a spirited round of the blame game, are emotionally damaged beyond all reasonable expectation of repair.
Also never mind that she’s positioned slightly off to the side. This woman has dibs on the center, and all others are doomed to spend their remaining days simply circling her orbit and hoping for a ray of warmth.
They’d be better off just cutting their losses and moving on with their lives. But then, there’d be no second act to Nicky Silver’s stealthy ode to pinning your failures on other people even as you come clean about your own lies.
The first act is a perfectly agreeable, and frequently uproarious, depiction of a family whose simmering resentment is brought to a boil thanks to an old dramatic chestnut (daddy’s dying!). But just when you begin to suspect it’s about to veer off into the land of farce and forced reconciliations, the play’s second act takes its troubled brood down a few unexpected roads that aren’t on the “daddy’s dying” genre map.
“The Lyons,” so concerned with patterns and change, sells that contradiction thanks in large part to one constant — Linda Lavin’s performance.
The theater, nightclub and sitcom veteran certainly knows how to snake her way around a setup before nailing its punchline — but, like the widowed single mother/waitress she portrayed on TV’s “Alice” (1976-1985), the cutting remarks dispensed by Rita Lyons are always served with just enough introspection and regret to give the proceedings a ring of sad truth.
Nicky Silver provides the whole cast their fair share of quick-witted remarks (the ability to make cruel, funny/true observations runs in the Lyons family). But he’s saved his best ones for the mother — and by casting Linda Lavin in that role, the playwright’s raw material is elevated by a kindred spirit (her instincts, and his words, make for the same pitch-perfect match that happened when Lavin played the titular role in Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”).
Whether dispensing non-verbal judgments on the relative merits of the plants her children bring as gifts — or reluctantly averting her eyes from that home design magazine long enough to dignify her dying husband’s insults with a response — much of what makes Rita Lyons a fully realized human being flows from Lavin’s utterly unique body language. Nearly every line of Silver’s dialogue is further sharpened by a telling physical reaction that gives the audience an unmistakable sense of the character’s inner dialogue (which seems to be a running commentary on the indignity of suffering fools).
“You don’t envision the physical life all at once,” Lavin says when asked how the highly expressive performance evolved. “It’s a process of development from my perception [of the character] and from the blueprint the writer has put down…and it comes through a collaboration with the director and the other actors; how you respond to or stimulate each other. So it’s a process.” Physical behavior, she notes, “is very much a part of what I care about, in terms of expressing or representing a character. It comes from the words and the story, but hopefully the words will inspire the behavior.”
What was there on the printed page, Lavin recalls, provided all crucial information necessary for knowing how to approach Rita. “Everything doesn’t come to you when you read a script,” Lavin asserts. “But when I read this one? By the time I got to her first monologue, when she talks to her husband who’s in a deep sleep, I knew that I wanted to do this…I knew how to do this. Because the first fifteen pages are funny and caustic and built on survival through humor. And I’m familiar with people like this, who use humor as a survival button.”
Lavin’s doing a pretty good job of surviving herself, these days. Although “The Lyons” will soon close, she’s already working on a September cabaret appearance at 54 Below. The nightclub veteran will be given ample support from Musical Director Billy Stritch and Lavin’s husband, jazz drummer Steve Bakunas — both of whom appear on Lavin’s debut CD, “Possibilities.”
When she performed selections from that CD at Birdland Jazz Club (a gig booked by Birdland “Cast Party” host and fellow Stritch collaborator Jim Caruso), Lavin’s phrasing and choice of introductory anecdotes provided the same window into her inner life that makes Rita Lyons such a compelling character to watch. Unique choices seem to be another consistent strength of Lavin’s, as evidenced from the CD’s selections (a solo rendering of popular duet, “There’s a Small Hotel” and a seldom-seen female take on Donald Fagen’s “Walk Between the Raindrops”). Later this summer, we’ll have more from our recent interview with Lavin — in which she discussed what went into creating “Possibilities.” For now, though, see her in “The Lyons” through July 1 — and book your tickets now for her September gig at 54 Below.
Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Through July 1
Tues. at 7pm; Wed. & Sat. at 2pm & 8pm
Thur. at 7pm; Fri. at 8pm; Sun. at 3pm
At the Cort Theatre (138 W. 48th St. btw. 6th & 7th Aves.)
For tickets ($26-$121), call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
For additional info: thelyonsbroadway.com
LINDA LAVIN IN CONCERT
Mon., Sept. 17, 7pm; Sun., Sept. 23, 3pm
At 54 Below
254 W. 54th St., (btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.)
Cover Charge: $30 for bar seats, $40 for main dining area
$25 food/drink minimum
For reservations, call 866-468-7619
For info, visit 54below.com or call 646-476-3551
To purchase the CD “Possibilities,” visit sh-k-boom.com/lindalavin.shtml
Also visit lindalavin.com