Thoughts & Musings

Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard:
Nicky Silver’s The Lyons (2011)

Discussion Sunday is January 26th


© 2014 by Eileen Warburton


For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow.
So always look on the bright side of life…

Eric Idle (1988)
At first glance, the Lyons family could remind you of the Addams family, that deliciously macabre gang who fashion laughter out of the sickly grotesque and a genetic proclivity for horror. But, then again, by comparison to the Lyons, Gomez and Morticia, Pugsley and Wednesday only look odd to the outside world. Inside the family bubble they are as cuddly and connected as any conventional family. They share affection. They are attached to each other. Contrariwise, the theme of The Lyons is detachment, family isolation.

Rita Lyons, sitting beside the deathbed of her husband of forty years, fantasizes eagerly about redecorating her living room. The theme is ice—“Icy blue. Glacier blue…like icicles.” “It sounds a little cold,” says her daughter. “That’s what I’m going for,” Rita confirms. Lisa, the daughter, has been a drunk since grade school. Asked to come up with “something meaningful” to say to her father before he dies, she has no memories of her own, confusing the bleakness of her childhood with images drawn from the movies. Curtis, the son, camouflages his extreme psychological isolation in an elaborate fiction of successful relationships, lying about his lovers, his work, even his name. Relationship, when both siblings try to make a commitment, actually invites abuse and violence. And the father, Ben Lyons, the patriarch at the center of this mishigas, Is reduced to impotent obscenities, spewing bitter negativities while his body, the metaphor for the family’s interconnection, is riddled with cancer, “apparently in every inch of him.” Nicky Silver, the playwright, says that the title, The Lyons, isn’t named “by chance.” “They are a combative group…a lot of anger is coming to the surface because of the crisis with which they’re confronted.”

We’d certainly call this a “dysfunctional family,” wouldn’t we? The laughter – which is abundant – comes from the biting zingers and unexpected observations when these four related people are locked into a room together, locked into a situation – the death of the patriarch and the dissolution of the family – that requires some affection, respect, and decency. These qualities are simply beyond them. The twist in this comedy, The Lyons, is that, while they actually do love one another (“very much,” says the playwright), it is love that has imprisoned them in this hellish family relationship.

We expect that, ultimately, love will provide some sort of redemption, or at least resolution. But, no. Love is the corrosive tie that binds and strangles. Ben’s love for Rita was a “trap” for both of them. Love for the children is, literally, a path to being lonely and physically hurt. It is only when love dies, in this terrifying but ever-so-hilarious play, that there’s some peace and possibility.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare’s Mercutio. They all cracked wise in the minutes before dying. This memorable kind of exit has long been called gallows humor: wit and laughter in the face of—and in response to—a hopeless situation, especially when death is impending and unavoidable. This reaction is so important a characteristic of human psychology that Sigmund Freud, a good Jewish Mitteleuropean if ever there was one, studied it in 1927, concluding, “ The ego refuses to be compelled to suffer . . . it shows that such traumas are no more than an occasion to gain pleasure.” In other words, you go out with your head up in a kind of dark gallantry, refusing to allow the oppressor to oppress you. In America, we associate this survivalist humor with Jewish culture and comedians. Our most skilled living practitioner of the art is Neil Simon who, when told of the crack-up his favorite brother’s marriage, famously mused, “Now. Hmmm. What’s funny about divorce . . . ?”

The Lyons goes further, working in the tradition of black absurdist comedy that considers human existence to be so ironic and pointless that you just have to laugh about it. This vision doesn’t ask for pity, simply for recognition.

This kind of humor is a peculiar form of comedy. Traditional comedy presents a world out of whack, a confused, upside- down universe that is righted finally through the course of the action. All along the way, it’s chaos and we laugh, but it does come right in the end. Families find themselves. Lovers unite. This black, absurdist comedy, however, gives us an upside-down universe, all right, but it stays that way. No dances and marriages, no happy endings, no masks removed or identities confirmed.

Nicky Silver (b. 1960) has been churning out these savage, defiantly eccentric comedies for about twenty years, premiering mostly at New York’s edgy Vineyard Theatre. After off-Broadway successes like Fat Men in Skirts (1991), Pterodactyls (1994), Raised in Captivity (1995), an Obie and a slew of Drama Desk nominations, The Lyons (2011) was his first play to move to Broadway. You have to guess that his poisonously funny plays have some biographical inspiration, but he reveals little publicly. A gay man, he comes from Pennsylvania, lived in Philadelphia, graduated from NYU, and now lives in New York City. “I experience life as an endless slugfest,” he’s willing to admit. For the rest of his background, the information is surely in his plays.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

*Just so you know, the famous quote: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” was the final statement of the great actor Edmund Kean in 1833. It’s also been ascribed to Donald Wolfit in 1968 and was appropriated by Peter O’Toole as Donald Swann (My Favorite Year) in 1982. A great line bears repeating.

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