You’ll notice that Linda Lavin rarely makes eye contact with her costars in The Lyons, Nicky Silver’s chipper burst of charnel-house absurdism, now playing at the Vineyard. This, we come to realize, is an act of mercy: Lavin’s Rita Lyons, matriarch of a clan of Connecticut depressives, is keeping her cockatrice gaze in reserve, lest it slay the anemic souls who huddle within her blast radius. These include her doomed grump of a husband, Ben (Dick Latessa), who’s expiring sourly, of every kind of cancer imaginable, in a hospital bed, and their awful little brood of permanent dependents, the secretly seething Curtis (Michael Esper) and walking abuse-magnet Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant). They’re all too old for the sorts of mistakes they still feel comfortable making, but then, no one ever really grows up in Silver’s grim, upper-middle-class Neverland. Eventually, of course, nearly everyone gets his or her lifeline severed, in a mass third-act euthanasia that may lack the grand cartoon cartharsis of Silver’s nineties hits (Pterodactyls, The Food Chain), but packs no less punch for being so cunningly humane. Silver loves his little monsters, and so we do, too.
That we don’t hate ourselves (or the playwright) for it is a tribute to the writing and the production (Mark Brokaw’s best in a while). First praised, then pilloried for his deliberate echoes of Albee, Orton, and Durang, Silver is once again hunting the absurdist’s big game, the impossibly farkakte American family. This time, though, he’s pacing himself, not laying waste to his quarry willy nilly, but mounting it gently and lovingly on the living-room wall. His chief instrument of destruction is Lavin’s Rita, who seems, at first, one of Silver’s classic monster-moms. Yet he treats her with a respect, even a reverence that feels new for him. (No rape, cannibalism, or wasting death for Mom this time around.) If anything, Rita has her author’s chief sympathy. With such a powerful weapon at the ready, Silver feels comfortable taking it easy, driving in the knife smoothly. Lavin, relaxed and in command, follows suit. She sucks her teeth and keeps her glare safely half-lidded, aiming it discreetly into glossy magazines, over the shoulders of her simpering interlocutors. Every twitch of that wide, roving, mobile mouth is a warning that nobody fully comprehends: Can’t they see that, in this family of fulminators, delusionists, and self-saboteurs—where masochism and passive-aggression pass as viable lifestyle choices—Rita’s the only Lyon who’s not yet gone in the teeth? When the time comes to cut the cord, she does it with bloodless efficiency. “You’re having sex with some 40-year old?” shrieks Curtis. “Who are you?!” “I’m the same person I’ve always been,” replies Rita, adding: “And I waited until your father was almost dead.” Her parting shot: “Pick out any urn you like.”
Silver’s in top form: “A little girl down the hall just died, and I got Jordan almonds,” Rita announces brightly, upon entering a hospital room. Unfashionable furniture is “the color of disgust.” Pungency and punch are in abundance, in nearly every exchange, and his cast is right there with him. Latessa proves himself a truly magnificent bastard as Ben, whose twin obsessions at the bitter terminus of his sputtering existence are his defiantly drab living-room upholstery (“I made those stains!”) and the unmistakable odor of his father, a scent he follows straight into oblivion and beyond. And Esper is spectacular as Curtis, who gradually lets his fatuous mask of dilettante Zen slip. His life is revealed to be a funnyhouse of loneliness and animal fear, and as the facade crumbles, he shares a thrillingly tilted scene of emotional sucker-punching with a very confused real-estate agent (Gregory Wooddell). And then there's Lavin: dominant, extraordinary, un-take-your-eyes-offable. But it’s to the play’s credit that she’s not the sole star in The Lyons’ firmament. As comedy about death, The Lyons isn’t trying to make a case for freshness or formal innovation. It's simply trying tell a funny, furious little tale of family annihilation with honesty, savagery, and humanity, a story about how we all, ultimately, pick out our own urns. It succeeds marvelously.
Across town, another unhappy family grapples haplessly with the Reaper in Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here. Kazan is best known as an actress (The Seagull, Angels in America), and often a very good one. Curiously, then, she’s filled her first major play with arid, empty, talky scenes that are practically impossible for actors to execute with any dynamism. Her subject is a New England family still recovering from a tragedy that touched it years before: Althea (Jessica Collins) is marrying a preternaturally sweet painter named Sandy (an excellent Jeremy Shamos), and her mother Maggie (Amy Irving) is hovering over the event, well-intentioned but a little wraith-like. Meanwhile, Althea’s little sister Dinah (Betty Gilpin) brings home an unexpected wedding-guest: Daniel (Oscar Isaac), Althea’s old flame and one-time boyfriend of her deceased twin-sister.
We Live Here is your basic face-the-past therapy session, with strong, sexually forthright women taking the lead and a passel of beta males slinking around the margins, cooing encouragement, trolling for sex or affection, or, in the case of Althea’s father Larry (an excellent Mark Blum), delivering haunted sermons on fate, folly and mischance. (Blum can make even what sounds a little like a Wikipedia entry on Greek tragedy sound suitably tormented.) Oddly, the retiring menfolk fare better than the female characters, who are forced to take the lead in Kazan’s stuttering, colloquial-to-the-point-of-screamingly-vacuous dialogues. Almost everyone looks lost in John Lee Beatty’s massive McMansion of a set; those not upstaged by various Crate and Barrel products are simply engulfed in fogs of awkwardness. Awkwardness, of course, is usually director Sam Gold’s metier, but the lacunae in Kazan’s script aren’t really fillable with meaning or foreboding—they’re just dramatic antimatter, or places where the seams don’t quite match. When the plot clumsily jerks into motion, we realize just how conventional the play is: What we might’ve mistaken for experimentation is just a young writer fumbling the rudiments. Kazan could have a future in playwrighting: She’s got a lurid interest in self-destructive characters that could serve her well, and she's got no blockages gumming up her id-vent. But she’s not been well-served with such a sumptuous production of such unrevised-feeling work.
The Lyons is at the Vineyard Theatre through October 30.
We Live Here is at City Center Stage I.