War of the Words

Linda Lavin puts the fun back in dysfunctional; Jonathan Groff loses his glee

At first glance, Nicky Silver’s new dark comedy, “The Lyons,” appears derivative at best. It’s a yet another quirky dysfunctional-family play. It’s a nagging-Jewish-mother play. It’s a codger-on-his-deathbed play. And yeah, one of the four principal players is gay — practically standard issue for this sort of affair these days.

And it’s set in Manhattan, natch.

Despite these tropes, the acclaimed author of such penetrating gems as “Pterodactyls” and “Beautiful Child” has crafted a fresh, incisive piece that both tickles the funny bone and strikes a nerve. Amazingly, this is his seventh play to premiere at the Vineyard Theatre. A couple of them went on to Broadway, and this stunner could be worthy of a transfer, too.

The Lyons family is truly despicable—hardly the sort of folks anyone would choose to spend an evening with. The father, Ben (Dick Latessa), suffering from end-stage renal cancer and lying in his hospital bed, has given up on any pretense of politeness and barks “fuck you!” repeatedly to his family.

The mother, Rita, who can barely conceal her relief that her husband of 30 years is finally kicking the bucket and has already started plans to redecorate the living room, ignoring Ben’s groans of protests. She sees nothing wrong with asking if he prefers Chinese modern or French provincial.

The children are even worse. Lisa is a bitter alcoholic still in love with her abusive ex-husband. Curtis, the estranged, delusional gay son, is a struggling short-story writer who wallows in self-pity, blaming his failures on his lousy childhood. As they bicker and snipe at one another, they expose a lifetime of rancor and lies. They’re not called the Lyons for nothing.

But we stick with these vile creatures, not just because the acting is superb across the board or that the dialogue is sharp and full of surprises. It’s because we recognize a part of ourselves and we want them to reform, discover human connection, and perhaps find some modicum of redemption.

This fall, Linda Lavin opted not to reprise her lauded roles in the Broadway transfers of Kennedy Center’s “Follies” and Lincoln Center’s “Other Desert Cities” so she could originate the role of Rita. And it’s a lucky thing, too, since her turn as the tart-tongued matriarch is nothing short of a tour-de-force. She infuses the garrulous Rita with an acerbic urgency that’s alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching.

“Your father and I were fighting all the time… When the kids are at camp, the knives come out,” she says matter-of-factly as she arches her eyebrows and scratches her nose.

Director Mark Brokaw (“The Dying Gaul,” “How I Learned To Drive”) strikes a nice balance between comic and caustic, and mixes up the staging to maximum effect. Providing relief from the hospital room scenes is a frantic monologue given by Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) at an AA meeting, her figure spotlighted against a backdrop of darkness. Another unexpected scene finds Curtis (Michael Esper, who brings a fragile ferocity to the role) in an empty studio apartment, playing a deranged cat-and-mouse game with a handsome real estate agent/ actor (Gregory Wooddell).

While on one level it is painfully amusing to witness this family implode, Silver’s fundamental point shines through. No matter how horrible the past, how dashed your dreams, how damaged your psyche, or how advanced your age, it’s never too late to wrangle a fresh start. And if people don’t like it, they can fuck off.

Another edgy comic drama, “The Submission,” by actor-cum-playwright Jeff Talbott, has more explosive social issues on its mind.

The premise is intriguing, albeit farfetched. Danny Larsen (Jonathan Groff, in unctuous charmer mode), an aspiring gay white playwright in his 20s, gets his poignant work — about a troubled black mother and son trying to escape the projects — accepted into a prestigious theater festival. Problem is, he chose to submit the play under the decidedly more ethnic pseudonym of Shaleeha G’ntamobi, which he made up. He was sure that if he used his real name, it would be passed over like the rest of his work.

Troubles mount when Danny hires Emilie (Rutina Wesley, from HBO’s “True Blood”), a clever, headstrong African-American woman, to pose as the playwright until opening night, when they would reveal Danny as the real genius behind the work. To complicate matters, Danny’s best bud Trevor (Will Rogers) begins seeing Emilie on the sly. Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Danny’s partner, starts to resent the cockamamie scheme.

Once you accept the idiocy of this plan, fraught with red flags and more suited to a television sitcom than a serious piece of theater, you can relish the increasing tension as the hired hand insinuates her own identity into the process. Danny loses control, jealous that he’s missing out on collaborating with the director, and the stage is set for a nasty debate about race and oppression in contemporary America.

For the most part, “The Submission” sidesteps the landmines that sink these kinds of racial screeds by viewing the issues from fresh angles. Danny argues that being maligned as a gay man is just as hurtful as the discrimination facing black women. Emilie is insulted by such a comparison. Danny lets slip some shockingly racist comments, but feels his observations are justified –– sometimes, political correctness muddies the truth.

The climactic showdown following the play’s premiere, where the ugliest epithets are launched like missiles whose damage can never be repaired, is supremely moving.

Despite solid performances from a committed cast, the artificiality of the plot — and the polemic — renders the characters less than real as well, undercutting emotional resonance.

Regrettably, perhaps relative newcomer Talbott was allowed too much creative control by director Walter Bobbie (“Venus in Fur”). The clunky coda, which sifts through the ashes of the damage, is superfluous and should have been cut.

To be sure, “The Submission” asks some probing questions about bigotry and ethnic stereotypes that, while posited many times before –– David Mamet’s “Race” from last year comes to mind –– certainly bear repeating.

This fiercely intelligent drama also wonders if a play’s power can be drawn from the work itself or if it is inextricably linked to the author. Likewise, it asks why a slur is okay within one group, yet heinous when uttered by anybody else. Understandably, we get no easy answers.

Essentials:

 

THE LYONS

Vineyard Theatre

108 E. 15th St., btwn. Fourth Ave. & Irving Pl.

Through Oct. 30

Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.

Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m.

$75; vineyardtheatre.org

Or 212-352-0303

THE SUBMISSION

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher St., btwn. Bleecker & Hudson Sts.

Through Oct. 22

Tue., Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.

Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.

$65; mcctheatre.org

Or 212-352-3101

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