Monday, May 7, 2012

The Lyons: Lavin the Great

Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa stars in The Lyons

Linda Lavin is familiar to long-time TV buffs as the star of Alice (for ten years beginning in the mid-seventies, she played the waitress role Ellen Burstyn had created in the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and as Peter Gallagher’s demanding Jewish mother, a recurring part on the appealing teen melodrama series The O.C. But New York theatre audiences know her as one of the great stage performers. Last season, in a revival of Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories, as a distinguished writer and N.Y.U. writing teacher who is betrayed by her most gifted student (Sarah Paulson), she gave the kind of performance that, in Broadway’s heyday, would have been legendary: you would have read about it in the columns of the prestigious New York theatre critics alongside the work of Alla Nazimova and Pauline Lord and Ethel Barrymore. I’ve seen only a handful of American actresses in a lifetime of New York theatregoing with Lavin’s stage technique and mesmerizing command; Blythe Danner has it, and Cherry Jones and Stockard Channing, and Donna Murphy in musicals, and after them the list starts to thin out. (There’s also Lily Tomlin, but her one-of-a-kind style and the genre she works in make her a special case.) Lavin suggests what Stella Adler might have been like in the Group Theatre productions of the 1930s – but that’s really a guess, based partly on the fact that Lavin’s combination of high-octane theatricality and emotional depth points toward the lineage of the Yiddish theatre (Adler’s father Jacob was a celebrated Yiddish actor and she got her early training working with him) and partly on the fact that the magnificent Clifford Odets parts Adler created, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing! and Clara Gordon in Paradise Lost, could just as easily have been written for Lavin – and someone should be smart enough to let her play them. But Lavin’s also got a vaudevillian side. She’s got the force of a mature Shelley Winters (the Shelley Winters, that is, of Lolita and the Paul Mazursky pictures Blume in Love and Next Stop, Greenwich Village) and Kay Medford’s irony of Kay Medford, but she’s far more elegant than either of these women. I’d compare her to Gertrude Berg, the radio and early TV star (The Goldbergs), but that link doesn’t suggest the undercurrents of lunacy that you see in her current performance as Rita Lyons in the new Nicky Silver comedy The Lyons.

Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper
Rita is a Jewish matriarch who is watching her husband Ben (Dick Latessa) die of cancer while her two grown-up children, Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a recovering alcoholic desperate for a new romantic entanglement since her marriage fell apart, and Curtis (Michael Esper), a gay man whose relationship turns out to be a fantasy, self-destruct. The play is quite entertaining for about twenty minutes because of the banter between Lavin and Latessa (whose dialogue is made up mostly of exasperated obscenities, and who is such a skillful comic that he manages to make every “fuck you” more uproarious than the last). But though it’s received laudatory reviews, including one from Ben Brantley in The New York Times, it’s an awful play. Silver – making his debut on Broadway after years of successful off-Broadway comedies (none of which I’ve seen) – is going for the mix of absurdism and heartbreak emotional realism that some of the best late-twentieth-century American plays achieved (John Guare in The House of Blue Leaves, Christopher Durang in The Marriage of Bette and Boo; the second seems to have served in some ways as a model for Silver), but the characters don’t feel authentic and there’s no dramatic structure. The first act takes place in Ben’s hospital room. Act two begins with a scene in which Curtis stalks an attractive actor (Gregory Wooddell) whose day job is renting apartments, and whom Curtis has used as the model for his invented boy friend; it’s bizarre and implausible on absolutely every level, and it seems to come from some entirely different play, except for the moment when Curtis receives a call on his cell from his mother informing him that Ben has died. The second scene returns to the hospital, where Curtis, having been beaten up by the realtor, is now being treated by the same sardonic, no-nonsense nurse (Brenda Pressley) who watched over his dying dad. Oh, and Ben show up again, briefly and irrelevantly, to make a report from the other side of the grave (though no one is likely to complain about the chance to see Latessa again for a few minutes).

Guare and Durang are masters of the tonal shift; Silver just switches from funny to sad, as if he were turning the lights on and off. A “meaningful” speech plunges the play into darkness until he’s ready to float another laugh line. The dramaturgy is so clunky that as you watch the actors standing around Allen Moyer’s flat, blocky set, the play seems to be staring back at you, the way scenes often do in a Wes Anderson movie, daring you to be the first to blink. Mark Brokaw’s staging doesn’t help: it feels as if he’s throwing up his hands in despair the moment more than two people have to negotiate that damn set. The three young actors appear lost, especially Esper, who has no comic style piled on top of an unplayable role.

In the midst of this mess Lavin somehow manages to give a tour de force performance, using her astonishing technique to finesse the tonal redirections. She plays Rita’s big confessional speeches (most of them occur in the final scene) as if she really were in a play by Odets, and the comedy as she were really acting Durang, with non-verbals that are every bit as hilarious as her line readings. (She bats her eyes as if she were flirting with a gorilla.) She has the musical range of an entire orchestra – she can ascend into a shriek like the violin strings in Bernard Herrmann’s score for the shower scene in Psycho or punch the end of a line with a bassoon-like low note. The Lyons is nonsense but Lavin is so inspiring you want to think up a whole new vocabulary to get at the quality of her acting.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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