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NY Theater Reviews

Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

By JESSICA BRANCH

In Nicky Silver’s new black comedy, the members of the Lyons family fight one another in a zero-sum battle for happiness.

“The lion’s share” is often used as though it were synonymous with “the largest portion,” but if you go back to the Aesop fable from which the phrase originates, you’ll find that actually, the lion gets everything. In Nicky Silver’s new black comedy, the members of the Lyons family are fighting one another in a zero-sum battle to find happiness – but it’s an open question whether any one of them manages to walk away with the whole prize.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, the play opens in a hospital room where Rita Lyons (Linda Lavin) is discussing how she will redecorate after her cancer-ridden husband Ben (Dick Latessa) finally passes away. The irascible Ben is not amused: He’s in pain and afraid and, frankly, a little dismayed at how easily his wife has come to terms with his imminent demise. Nor does his mood improve when his children – Lisa, a dysfunctional divorcee (Kate Jennings Grant), and Curtis, a Zenner-than-thou short-story writer (Michael Esper) – come to visit, even though it means that Rita’s passive-aggressive barbs are largely redirected at her disappointing offspring.

Ben calls Rita a bitch, but that’s not quite right. Sure, she’s got no empathy for her dying husband, but she’s determined to do her wifely duty and wait out his final hours with him. And if her boredom and frustration lead her to entertain herself by puncturing her family’s egos, well, they’re admittedly easy targets, and we get the impression this isn’t a new pattern for this family.

Lavin is undeniably the star of this show, and Silver gives her plenty to work with. Whether she’s chiding Ben for his fear of an afterlife or asking Lisa if she’s had her son tested for mental retardation yet, she milks every acerbic line with an exaggerated shrug or eyeroll, evoking the stereotype of the Jewish mother at its most evil and effective. She is terrific and terrifying, and she cows every other character.

Which makes it all the stranger when the second act opens without her. Instead, it focuses on an almost Pinteresque confrontation between Curtis and a man with whom he has only an imaginary relationship (Gregory Wooddell), which gives us some insight into just how lacking Rita and Ben’s parenting has been. The upshot catapults the family back into the hospital, where a newly empowered Rita proceeds to shock her family to its foundations as she plans a new life for herself. She’s ruthless – but by now you can’t help feeling she’s in the right.

The dialogue of this play is often hilarious, less frequently heartbreaking, and sometimes both. Latessa’s depiction of the dying man’s mix of regrets and resentment is eye-opening, and the rest of the cast, down to the nurse (Brenda Pressley, who gets only a few lines, though they’re crucial), is excellent, though they’re not often given much to do beyond responding. But for all the play’s sharp observations of how ego and obligation interact, its insights don’t run quite as deep, and the answers at which it arrives feel more sentimental and more diffident than they might have done in more skilful hands. Nonetheless, Lavin is triumphant in what emerges as the play’s most well-rounded role, and she does deserve every last handclap she gets of the audience’s enthusiastic applause – even if it’s not the lion’s share.