By Philip Pearce
The Lyons, who give their family name to the latest offering at Paper Wing’s new Fremont Street theater, are a curious parent-offspring quartet. They talk and talk and talk, starting the evening with some pretty good one-liners as though they were prototypical Neil Simon dysfunctional family retreads. But the funny veneers begin to wear away and they gradually morph into monsters nearly as terrible but nowhere near as interesting as Edward Albee’s George and Martha.
Patriarch Ben Lyons, dying of cancer in a Manhattan hospital room, scorns his complaining alcoholic daughter Lisa and hates his defensive gay son Curtis, while howling obscenities at his attentive and seemingly devoted wife Rita.
Seemingly, because we will discover that Rita’s not really just a daffy suburbanite bent on marking her hubby’s demise by redecorating the living room. She’s actually a crypto East Coast Mrs Robinson who’s been carrying on a backstairs affair through most of Ben’s illness with daughter Lisa’s A.A. mentor. On the night of Ben’s funeral, Rita flies off for a dirty fling in the tropics with her new boy toy.
Then there’s Lucas Tovey as Curtis, who starts off like a quiet-spoken victim of his mother’s smothering possessiveness and his father’s homophobia. He’s so afraid of commitment that he makes up imaginary boyfriends just to avoid involvement with his parents or anyone else. It’s only in Act 2 that he emerges from the shadows as an urban lone wolf so devious, nasty and vindictive that he gives homosexuality a bad name.
The play ran two months on Broadway, reportedly thanks to the artistry of Linda Lavin as Rita. This cast has its moments, but it’s unfair to strap amateurs with such challenging and unpromising material. They lack the timing and line delivery that must carry all the First Act comedy and they haven’t really got the emotional range and variety that might make the second act sturm und drang bearable.
As Ben, Richard Mueller fares best, probably because he has the easiest of the four major roles. From the get-go Ben is a pissed off, homophobic potty mouth and remains a pissed off, homophobic potty mouth to his dying day. He does return for a brief and mellower second act cameo in which he concludes that it’s no great shakes being dead but it’s heaps better than being alive was.
The other three principals have the tougher task of bringing to life characters who start out seemingly simple but become as complex as they are unpleasant to watch in action. Andrea MacDonald is just too obviously sane and likeable to convince us that she’s either that relentless chatterbox of her early scenes or the dark and cynical adulteress of her final moments.
Penelope Morgan handles the thankless task of portraying a complaining alcoholic tragedy queen pretty well, but doesn’t give the script a lot of help in overcoming its rather monotonous portrait of a mournful Jenny One-Note. Only in the final sequence, when Lisa settles for a necessarily short-term relationship with another dying cancer patient, does she manifest a welcome bit of quiet hope and a measure of interest.
That leaves Lucas Tovey, who is almost too silent and apologetically self effacing as Curtis Lyons in Act 1, then moves on to a disturbing Act 2 encounter with Brian (David Naar), a closeted gay actor moonlighting as a Manhattan realtor. Their meeting starts off all big city banter and in-jokes but ends in one of the most sordid and unpleasant confrontations you’re likely to see in a month of Sunday playgoings on the Monterey Peninsula. Suffice it to say, Curtis ends up beaten, battered and confined to his late father’s old hospital bed, where he proves just as bad tempered if not quite so relentlessly profane as Ben was.
Paper Wing tends to bill itself as “cutting edge.” I’m all for that if you mean theater that breaks new ground, explores the human condition from a fresh perspective and takes exciting risks. If that’s your definition, The Lyons doesn’t quite qualify. Dirty-talkin’, yes. Occasionally funny if too often too derivative, yes. Cutting edge, no.
It continues weekends through April 19th.