The program distributed with each ticket to AstonRep Theatre Company’s 2015/2016 season kickoff, “The Lyons,” includes Director Derek Bertelsen’s interview with playwright Nicky Silver. Silver tells Bertelsen, in reference to the script, “I wrote it in four weeks. A few lines got changed around but for the most part, the play stayed as-is.
This confession is revealing in more ways than one. In press efforts, the creation speed is positioned as something of a precocious wonder. But in the experience, the joyless material has nothing to say. No humor, gratuitous profanity (and don’t get me wrong, there are few things I enjoy more than an intelligent cuss) and horribly unlikable characters played with all the wrong notes.
For the stage disjointedness, clearly Bertelsen and his cast shoulder some of the blame. After all “The Lyons” did receive multiple prestigious award nominations after its 2012 Broadway debut. But here’s the wrinkle. I’ve really enjoyed many of the players in other productions, so much that the heavy disappointment in seeing them so willingly ill-used here only underscores the flaws of the material. Why is this play so well-received?
The cognitive dissonance starts with the press description of the work: “Indomitable matriarch Rita Lyons is at a major crossroads. Her husband is dying, her son is in a dubious relationship and her daughter is barely holding it together… Worst of all Rita can’t figure out how to redesign her living room.”
For starters, I’m not convinced that Rita is the centerpiece of the story or the script. Cases could be made for all members of the Lyons family, but I’m also not convinced it matters. Literally nothing matters in this play, and not, as other critics have suggested, in a delicious, literate Wildean fashion. The characters are dark, nasty and soulless, except perhaps for the dying patriarch, who seems most alive in the afterlife.
A few funny lines of dialogue notwithstanding, you can’t root for any of these people. And not in an addictive anti-hero, Walter White kind of way. There were many (this critic included) who couldn’t be stopped from seeing Walter’s story through to the bitter end. But I cared as little about any of “The Lyons” as I am certain they would be indifferent to me if existent.
And this is where furious writing inside a month-long cocoon can lead, to insulation between the individual phrases and the finished product, which is just not good or interesting on any human level.
As I said, I have liked members of AstonRep’s cast tremendously in other endeavors. Scott Olson, who plays father Ben Lyons, is coming off a ferocious turn in Prologue Theatre’s “Porcelain.” Susan Fay (Rita) displayed excellent, desperate comedic timing in Remy Bummpo’s recent “The Clean House.” And Amy Kasper, who plays the Lyons’ long-suffering Nurse, scared the crap out of me in previous AstonRep offering, “The Water’s Edge.” I mean that as a complete compliment.
Why is such a talented cast rendered so brittle, unfunny and obnoxious? Most definitely a troubled script devoid of self-awareness. However I also have to question Bertelsen’s direction. These actors should be able to make an instruction manual sound snappy and vibrant. Instead, for confusing reasons, it’s as though they were instructed to go Method and drink the listless, nihilistic Kool-Aid offered by their characters.
I think it’s pretty clear. I’m not a fan of AstonRep Theatre Company’s season premiere, “The Lyons.” But the group has a good track record and plenty of time to recover from an awkward, dreary beginning.
“The Lyons” runs through September 27 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 773-828-9129, or visit the AstonRep Theatre Company website.