(From left: Jeanne Task as Rita, Dudley Swetland as Ben, Christopher M. Bohan as Curtis, and Anjanette Hall as Lisa)
The backbone of at least half of all theatrical productions is the American-style dysfunctional family, a fetid trough where playwrights greedily feed to fuel both comedies and tragedies.
But the dysfunctions don’t often come with the level of dark humor and wicked bite that’s displayed in The Lyons, now at Dobama Theatre. Written by Nicky Silver, this play plops us down in the hospital room of a man dying of cancer and forces us to laugh at him and his whole nuclear bomb of a family.
While often uproariously funny, the script feels a bit long and overwritten in places. The talented cast, under Nathan Motta’s crisp direction, makes some missteps but lands many solid laughs and mostly papers over the show’s minor glitches.
Ben Lyons is an older man with a body riddled with cancer. But that may not be his worst problem since his wife, stylishly dressed Rita, is obsessing over redoing the family’s living room décor and not terribly upset by her spouse’s terminal situation (“Try to be positive,” she helpfully instructs him at one point).
Their grown children aren’t much of a balm since Lisa is a divorced recovering alcoholic and Curtis is gay. This is a fact the bombastic Ben regrets bitterly, saying to his son, “My life has been one long parade of disappointments and you are the grand fucking marshal!”).
The first act smashes all four of these flawed, neurotic people together into a small hospital room and the comedy sparks fly in all directions. Ben is apparently now given to launching obscenities, freed from decorum by his illness, and that powers much of the humor.
In that role, Dudley Swetland is truly a force to be reckoned with, and he knows how to time a line for maximum effect. But his Ben actually seems quite hale and hearty, rosy-cheeked and bouncy in his bed. With few clues as to his near-death state, Ben just seems like a loud-mouthed jerk rather than a vindictive, lonely and dying man who really is mean to the bone. And that lessens the impact of his character.
As Rita, Jeanne Task beautifully underplays many of her pungent lines, making them land with even more amusing snap. When Ben shares his fear about going to Hell, Rita rejoins with the quiet yet withering, “Who are you to get into Hell? What did you do?”
The downside of Task’s measured approach is that we don’t fully sense Rita’s interior battle against her own desperation, saddled with a life that’s as depressing as the living room couch that’s “matted down with resignation.”
Anjanette Hall as Lisa is a gloriously muddled mess, discovering the extent of her father’s illness for the first time and dealing with her own demons. Even though her fall off the wagon is rendered a bit too broadly, Hall brings an undeniable whiff of credibility to her role.
After a supremely tight and laugh-filled first act, the second act is a jumble.
It starts with a largely unnecessary interlude of Lisa addressing her AA group, followed by perhaps the most interesting scene in the show. Curtis is hunting for a new apartment and is attracted to Brian (Sean Grandillo), his cute real estate agent. Their amusing, unpredictable interchange is fascinating and surprising. And Christopher M. Bohan as Curtis is superb as he veers from hope to despair in his attempt to make a human connection.
Unfortunately, the script goes mostly downhill from there, ending with a tender encounter between Curtis and his (and his father's) nurse, played by Joyce M. Meadows, that forces a happy ending, of sorts.
But if you like to wallow in another family’s comical turmoil, and who doesn’t, The Lyons is your hilarious cup of acidic tea.
Through May 19 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396