Perhaps the worst fate one could wish on the characters in The Lyons is for the four of them to end up in the same room together again.
It’s not an occasion that happens frequently. The quartet has been brought together in Nicky Silver’s acerbic, funny play because Ben, the family patriarch (John Lescault), is dying of cancer. That might put most families on their best behavior. But even as the Lyonses try to tolerate one another (and truth be told, the suddenly vulgar Ben isn’t making much of an effort), they wind up trading barbs, cutting each other to the core, and revealing each other’s deepest secrets, all within the span of a hospital’s visiting hours. As an example, recovering alcoholic Lisa (Kimberly Gilbert) hasn’t been in the room for more than a minute or two before her mother, Rita (Naomi Jacobson), has revealed she thinks Lisa’s son is retarded. “Just moderately. A little,” Rita sniffs defensively.
Silver’s intriguing, sometimes jolting play works not because the Lyonses are likable, relatable, or even particularly realistic (the dialogue, even in the hands of Round House Theatre’s able cast, can still sound practiced). It works because they’re interesting. Particularly intriguing is the caustic but complicated Rita, a woman who’s never really loved her husband but can’t bear the thought of life without him. She has a tendency to destroy everyone in her wake, but Jacobson does an admirable job demonstrating Rita’s surprise that anyone would see her thoughts or actions as less than obvious or justified, no matter how narcissistic or ridiculous they are. Ben dares express shock that she once bought a gun years ago, with designs on using it on him. “It was a whim!” she counters with hilarious exasperation. The character’s complexity, combined with Jacobson’s meaty portrayal, make it impossible not to root for Rita when it looks like she’s been given a second stab at happiness as the play wraps up.
The first act of The Lyons proceeds rather conventionally, but the second act reveals more surprises. It’s structurally different—Gilbert opens the play by including the audience in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Scenes change swiftly, courtesy of Misha Kachman’s rotating set, and transform to the tune of blastingly loud and unexpected music choices, including a creepy cover of “Over the Rainbow.” The drama is also heightened—dire circumstances give the audience more of a window into Curtis (Marcus Kyd), Ben and Rita’s son, who is perhaps the most damaged of the Lyons. His scenes with a no-nonsense nurse (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, making the most of a small role) have a tenderness to them. It’s a testament to Silver’s writing and John Vreeke’s direction that the audience longs for a little warmth for Curtis—or for anyone, really, in this dysfunctional family.
The Lyons is at Round House Theatre Bethesda through December 22. Running time is about two hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $45) are available via Round House’s website.