‘Lyons’ a biting, dark comedy – with heart 

click to enlarge From left, Ellen Ratner, Will Marchetti and Jessica Bates are good as members of a dysfunctional family in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere of “The Lyons.” - COURTESY DAVID ALLEN
  • From left, Ellen Ratner, Will Marchetti and Jessica Bates are good as members of a dysfunctional family in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere of “The Lyons.”
You might not expect a show about a dying patriarch to be one of the funniest plays of the season, but the laughs come at regular intervals in the new Aurora Theatre production of “The Lyons.”

Of course, as Samuel Beckett observed, nothing is funnier than unhappiness. And Nicky Silver’s dark comedy, directed by Barbara Damashek in its regional premiere, makes it hard to say which member of this fiercely dysfunctional family is most miserable.

Ben Lyons has good reason to be unhappy – he’s in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. But the other Lyons – his overbearing wife Rita, their gay son Curtis and divorced alcoholic daughter Lisa – are all too self-centered to pay much attention.

As they gather around Ben’s bedside, the opening scene turns hilariously toxic. Curtis, a writer of short stories with an aversion to human contact, and Lisa, who’s still carrying a torch for her abusive ex-husband, arrive bearing potted plants and quickly lapse into long-established bickering.

Ben’s caustic, foul-mouthed responses scarcely register, and when he states the obvious – he’s not going to last much longer – Rita, who’s already making plans to redecorate the living room, simply snaps “Yes, I know, but try to be positive.”

Act 1 proceeds as a briskly paced farce around the hospital bed. But Silver gradually mines these simmering resentments for a deeper vein of existential angst. Each character is yearning for release and a new kind of connection.

In Act 2, the play – the anchor production of Aurora’s Global Age Project for new works about the new millennium – takes an unexpected turn. Curtis has a strange encounter with a real estate salesman in an empty apartment. Lisa and Rita, meanwhile, make surprising discoveries of their own. Damashek’s production, which plays out on Eric Sinkkonen’s accommodating set, highlights Silver’s hairpin turns and elicits outstanding performances from the cast.

Ellen Ratner sets the tone as Rita, whose acid tongue and shellacked veneer makes her soul-baring Act 2 revelation all the more riveting. Will Marchetti brings a well-timed air of weary desperation to the role of Ben.

Nicholas Pelczar’s Curtis is a marvelous creation, one that strikes all the right notes of fear, longing, humor and pathos; Jessica Bates invests Lisa with an aptly frazzled intensity.

Joe Estlack is a magnetic presence as the real-estate agent, and Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe makes deliciously wry contributions as the hospital nurse.

Together they make “The Lyons” a rare comedy – wickedly funny, with a beating heart.


The Lyons

Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 1

Tickets: $32 to $50

Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

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Georgia Rowe

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