The longest silence in “The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s scathing comedy of family malevolence, is the one that follows the line: “Let’s talk about something pleasant.”
The Lyons, pieces of work one and all, are not programmed for pleasant. Gathered around the hospital bed of the dying patriarch Ben (a heartily, baroquely foulmouthed John Lescault), his brood is ever-ready to go nuclear, especially wife Rita (Naomi Jacobson), a manicured monster of passive-aggressiveness. Sitting regally at his side, Rita is like a grim reaper with good grooming, torturing Ben with details of her plans for spending his money. After he’s dead, of course.
Out of the ensuing scenes spill the repercussions of the family’s resentments, in ways that activate lots of laughs at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, particularly in the long, first scene that functions like an open sewer of bile. The enjoyment in director John Vreeke’s production wanes a bit as the evening unfolds, however — a deflation caused in part by the lack of a needed neurosis-fueled hysteria in the son, Curtis, played by an oddly under-energized Marcus Kyd.
Still, the local premiere of “The Lyons” is a pleasing “welcome back” to Silver, whose early championing by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in plays like “Fat Men in Skirts” and “The Food Chain,” was important to the growth of the playwright, and the company. It’s a vital job that Round House is doing, reintroducing Silver to Washington. And in the process, it demonstrates the strides that producing artistic director Ryan Rilette is making in raising the company’s profile as an essential stop for drama.
“The Lyons” did well in its initial off-Broadway run and less well in a move to Broadway, where last year it lasted for little longer than two months. The production did earn a Tony nod for Linda Lavin, as Rita. Jacobson, blithely tossing Rita’s insults at her sputtering children, is a worthy heir of the role. Worthier still is the splendid Kimberly Gilbert, perfectly cast as daughter Lisa, a lost soul fermenting in liquor and insecurity. Gilbert’s mixture of neediness and belligerence seems exactly right and fully justifies Vreeke’s decision to reinstate a monologue Lisa delivers after intermission that was cut when the play moved to Broadway.
Lescault and Jacobson square off spicily in an opening scene that lays the groundwork for one of Silver’s concerns: What is to become of the offspring of a couple who should have never been together? Regretting her lifelong tether to Ben, Rita takes her bitterness out on Lisa, who enters the hospital room to a barrage of her mother’s withering judgments. Rita is so blunt that the audience giggles in spite of itself; Gilbert, looking dazed, makes us understand the ways in which her character’s status as Mama’s punching bag might transfer to other relationships in her life.
Dad, meanwhile, freed of inhibition by the death sentence cancer has meted out, unloads mercilessly on Kyd’s Curtis, who’s gay, emotionally disengaged and, as we discover, seriously disturbed. Kyd embodies Curtis’s creepy fixation — detailed in a scene in a vacant apartment shown to him by a real estate agent played by Brandon McCoy — in such an offhand manner that the explosion between them feels inadequately ignited. (On the other hand, Joe Isenberg’s fight choreography is thoroughly convincing.)
Misha Kachman’s conjuring of the hospital room and apartment, mounted on a turntable, are pleasingly realistic, and the chic handling of Rita’s wardrobe by Rosemary Pardee fetchingly underscores the attention Rita pays to her closets compared with her kids. Laughing at the well-upholstered disaster that she and Ben have made of domestic life is a reasonable response to Vreeke’s mostly satisfactory production. So is cringing.
by Nicky Silver. Directed by John Vreeke. Sets, Misha Kachman; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound and music, Matthew M. Nielson; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg; assistant director, Adi Stein. With Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Tickets, $25-$50. Through Dec. 22 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.