'The Lyons': One-liners rule in this sharp satire about family dysfunction

They say a crisis can bring a family closer together or cleave them apart forever.

Yet somehow both things happen at once to the Lyonses, the hilariously awful suburban middle-class family satirized in Nicky Silver’s black comedy The Lyons.

When tragedy enters the lives of this preternaturally dysfunctional clan, they pull tighter and tighter together all the better to maul each other to death.

Patriarch Ben, his wife Rita and their two entitled, narcissistic children aren’t exactly what you’d call a nuclear family. They’re a toxic meltdown.

This quartet of desperate creatures will make Philadelphia audiences shriek with delightful disdain at Isis Productions’ incredibly funny, if uneven and flawed presentation of The Lyons at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5 in Center City. It will run through April 9.

A minimalist storyline presented by director Neill Hartley in a minimalist setting, The Lyons opens in a hospital room where the 60-something Ben, his body riddled with cancer, awaits his death. Philly-based actor John Zak (Isis Productions’ House of Blue Leaves) is wonderfully demoniacal as the Jewish, suburban, middle-class King Lear raging at the world for all the injustices he’s suffered at the hand of his wife and children.

And his first order of business is to reassert his rightful place as king of his castle. When his wife tells him she plans to redecorate the house after he’s gone, he hits the roof, telling her he’s forbidding her to change a single piece of furniture.

It’s a liberating moment for Ben.

Hopped up on a high-dose morphine drip, he lets go of his final inhibitions and gives free reign to his foul-mouthed, sometimes vile, if utterly lucid inner misanthrope whose voice he has suppressed and censored most of his life.

The Lyons is about liberation – of a kind. As death looms ever closer, ever larger, Ben and Rita drop the pretenses and the role playing.

Isis producing artistic director Renée Richman-Weisband (Jake’s Women) is far and away the star of the show as Rita, mordant, if not entirely cynical, a woman with a razor-sharp intellect who finds the courage and freedom to admit she’s grown to loathe Ben. So much so that she once bought a gun “on a whim” to kill him.

Zak and Richman-Weisband have great chemistry and a great rapport, delivering their lines in perfect rhythm.

Things are less smooth when it comes to the two actors playing their dysfunctional spawn.

Kyle Fennie is terrific as Curtis in a later scene written specifically for his character but he’s awkwardly placed in the early hospital scenes.

Curtis’ big confrontation with his father, who despises him for being gay, is hampered by poor blocking, which drains the dialogue of its emotional energy.

Kirsten Quinn seemed far too tentative as Curtis’ sister Lisa, whose character is never fully developed in this production.  I’m not sure if that was down to Quinn’s performance or the direction: But her scenes felt truncated, incomplete. It’s especially troubling given how little we see of the character.

Curtis has an entire act devoted to him (it features a solid turn by Chase Byrd in a supporting role as a love interest). Whereas Lisa seems to fly in and out of the story without leaving much of an impression.

The one thing not in short supply were the laughs. Irreverent, often foul and absurdist, Silver’s scathing observations and wicked one-liners were delivered beautifully by the entre cast.

Theater

The Lyons
Through April 2, presented by Isis Productions at the Walnut Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street.
Tickets:  $25.
Information: 609-220-7537 or isisperforms.com.

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