47° Good Afternoon
47° Good Afternoon

Linda Lavin stars in dark family comedy

Michael Esper, Dick Latessa, Linda Lavin and Kate

Michael Esper, Dick Latessa, Linda Lavin and Kate Jennings Grant in a scene from "The Lyons," written by Nicky Silver, directed by Mark Brokaw. Credit: Carol Rosegg

When "The Lyons" opened at the tiny Vineyard Theatre in the fall, the mystery of Linda Lavin was finally solved.

Why, the theater community had been asking for months, did this accomplished and scene-stealing star decide to go Off-Broadway in an unproven piece instead of transferring to Broadway with the acclaimed "Other Desert Cities" or moving from Washington to Broadway with the cast of "Follies"?

But the moment Lavin launched into the opening monologue in Nicky Silver's dark comedy, we got it. With Rita Lyons, the playwright with the awesome respect for hysteria -- especially female -- had created a character hungry for all the layers of emotional terrorism this actress commands.

I remember marveling at the infinite variety of contempt, self-pity and fear she expressed just by pursing her lips. Much has been written about Lavin's voice, a sound that manages to be grating and comforting at the same time. But who knew how much she could say by simply shutting her mouth?

So here she is now on Broadway with her Rita, which also happens to be Silver's long-delayed Broadway debut. And I wish I could say the transfer makes as much sense as her original decision to hook her star to this play.

"The Lyons" never was the most consistently inspired of Silver's family horror-story comedies. In the big theater, it feels thin. Lavin is exaggerating the sighs to fill the room, and I miss the devastating detail of the intimacy.

Still, there is much to enjoy in Silver's deep, dark whirlpool of hairpin mood swings, loopy litanies, despair and unexpected tenderness.

In three brief scenes (a fourth has wisely been cut), director Mark Brokaw shows us how, as Rita says early on, "you never know what's going on behind closed doors." Rita is a hyper-articulate, bitter and upwardly striving middle-class woman who overdresses every day for her husband's hospital deathwatch. Browsing a home-furnishing magazine for remodeling tips for impending widowhood, she launches into just the first of many stream-of-consciousness soliloquies of blunt cruelty and unbridled bad taste.

She is the motormouth wife of the cancer-ridden and nasty Ben (the always wonderful, underutilized Dick Latessa). She is also the disappointed mother of a barely recovering alcoholic (a shrill Kate Jennings Grant) and a gay short-story writer (Michael Esper), who has a wildly unpredictable scene with a Ken doll of a real estate agent (Gregory Wooddell).

But what felt like a satire of the sitcom in the small theater feels too much like a sitcom now.

WHAT "The Lyons"

WHERE Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

INFO $26.50-$126.50; 212-239-6200; broadway .com/shows/lyons

BOTTOM LINE Linda Lavin is big in Broadway transfer, but play got small.

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