By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
She's the scorned woman who showed Hell what fury looks like. She's the 2500 year-old feminist icon, half witch, half myth. Medea, Euripides' child-murdering monster, is also Nicky Silver's appalling maternal character who turns up over and over again in his plays. Too Much Sun, his newest comedy, stars the knockout Linda Lavin diva-ing it up in this premiere at the Vineyard Theater.
Silver, a Philadelphian turned New Yorker, specializes in grotesque comedy; in Too Much Sun, he gives us an actress preparing the role of Medea, and Lavin's first scene, in full Ancient Greek regalia (robes, headdress, eyeliner) is hilarious. Forgetting her lines, complaining about the direction, complaining about her dressing room, complaining about everything, she finally stalks off stage and into a taxi.
Once she arrives at the summer beach house to visit her daughter Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt) and son-in-law Dennis (Ken Barnett), mayhem ensues. We expect Medea-like doings from the famous and ego-maniacal Audrey Langham, but it turns out that, as we learn in Act Two, "People surprise you just when you think you have them all figured out."
Of all the not-very-surprising but irritating characters in Too Much Sun, Audrey Langham is the most interesting and least awful. The rich next-door neighbor, Winston (Rich Bekins) who seems such a sweet old-fashioned dolt of a guy, and who is lined up to be Audrey's Husband #6, turns out to be an indiscriminate womanizer. Dennis gets romantically involved with Winston's son (Matt Dickson) in a plot tangle we can see coming a mile away. Gil (Matt Dellapina) is his uncle's assistant (his uncle being Audrey's frantic agent, "Goebbels minus the warmth") but he longs to be a rabbi despite having no interest in theology.
The play starts out funny and loses steam and laughs fast. The Medea connection turns out to have no real resonance in the play, and the title makes no sense at all. But Lavin is a treat to watch and the only reason to see this show. The rest of the cast is mainly a series of acting clichés: Westfeldt keeps her face scrunched up in querulous dismay throughout, while Barnett's emotional range reaches only so far as a trembling lower lip. Mark Brokaw's direction has everyone deliver their this-is-who-I-am monologue facing the audience, compounding the play's awkward triteness. But as soon as Lavin prances onstage with her superb timing, the stage lights up.
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York. Through June 22.