“I forgive you. For making sure I knew I wasn’t the child that you wanted,” Curtis says, swallowing his pride and humbly attempting to make peace with his father, Ben, at the end of the latter’s life. But, in an act of cruel hubris, he is profanely shot down.
Nicky Silver’s play “The Lyons,” a fierce, final offering of Cockroach Theatre’s 10th anniversary season, is chock-full of moments like this. While they might be painful, paradoxically they are also outrageously funny.
As Ben lay dying in the hospital, wife Rita flippantly discusses her desire to remodel their home after his passing, a shabby home with “chairs the shade of disgust.” Weary after years of her henpecking and no longer caring to filter, he responds to her indifference with outbursts of vulgarity. It’s his house and his butt that “put the dents in those cushions,” and he loves “everything in it. Except for the people.”
People such as their children, now grown and tremendously damaged by the self-absorption of the parents, have since moved on to lead unfulfilling lives. Lisa is an unsuccessfully reformed alcoholic who is attracted to abusive men, and Curtis is an introverted writer who happens to be gay and so imaginative that his love relationships take place in the safety of his own mind.
Ben’s impending demise becomes a day of reckoning for all. With an anti-sentimental look at the impossible expectations that family members place on each other and the disdain and isolation it engenders, Silver emulates Albee through savage barbs mixed with reluctant melancholy in his metaphorical speech.
And while it has a difficult, oddly tangential second act that deeply explores the pathological psyche of Curtis, director Taliesin McEnaney eases this abruptness and fills in the spaces by carrying the death scene through the intermission and into the opening of the second act. In a soothing montage choreographed to the tune of Ben’s favorite song, “Ballad of the Green Beret,” we get to see the characters connect in a much-needed way.
The fantastic revolving set by Tim Burris also does much to soften the emotional harshness, making the transition from one locale to the next incredibly smooth, as does the gentle lighting of Jessica Betts.
Anita Bean colors the self-centered Rita with vivacity, toned here and there by the warm hue of regret. She somehow gives soul to this insensitive creature and delivers many vicious one-liners with ironic flair.
Equally funny is Dale Parry as the pragmatic Ben. Obscenities delightedly roll off his tongue, a definitive revenge after having been silenced for so long.
Ela Rose creates a comically exasperated Lisa; Nick Batton is nicely measured as the naive Brian; and Lee Meyers provides heart as the matter-of-fact Nurse.
But the show ultimately belongs to the formidable Aaron Oetting as weirdo Curtis. He gives an amazing, metered performance, slowly peeling off the layers of a disturbing guy. He adds complexity to the character that is difficult to see on the page but nicely reflects the trauma and lifelong sadness he feels at having been dismissed for his homosexuality by an unaccepting Ben.
On his deathbed, Ben says, “Everyone smells like who they are.” We get a scent of all of them in this painfully funny show.