When the lead character in a small show falls ill, who comes to the rescue? The esteemed director, of course. Bobby Miller, one of the top-notch actors in St. Louis, was unable to play the patriarch in "The Lyons" Saturday, so Wayne Salomon, his director and longtime pal -- no slouch in the acting department either -- took over the part.
The cast didn't miss a beat, and the audience never noticed a glitch. The professionalism of the Max and Louie production is a hallmark of this group. They smoothly presented a very dark contemporary comedy that played on Broadway not too long ago, with strong performances of these prickly, messed-up characters.
The story begins and ends in a hospital room, and the tiny space explodes with family squabbles, regrets, resentments, and fateful decisions. Playwright Nicky Silver dug deep into the typical dysfunctional repertoire, and your perspective depends on how much fun your family puts into dysfunctional relationships.
Ben, the father, is dying of cancer, and his wife of 40 years is thinking ahead on how she will redecorate the living room. This may sound harsh, but Rita's a tough cookie. With a thick New York accent and well-heeled attitude to spare, Judi Mann, memorable in Westport Playhouse's "Menopause: The Musical," has the suburban Jewish matriach downpat. Linda Lavin received a Tony nomination for playing this role last year.
Ben doesn't care anymore what he blurts out, and there are some outrageous zingers to be heard. If you were on your deathbed, how would you handle your grown-up children that turned out so awful? Self-absorbed, under-achieving brats -- Lisa (Meghan Maguire) is a bitter, needy, high-strung recovering alcoholic with men problems, and Curtis (Charlie Barron) is an uptight gay guy with serious social and relationship issues. He has not been around, as his father is homophobic and he's in no mood for lectures and needling from mom.
The toxic siblings are as unlikable as they sound, and both actors convey their sharp edges but also a flash of sadness, that they are trapped in these unsatisfying lives and can't seem to connect even when they try.
All four are quite adept at bickering, and deliver the caustic dialogue with aplomb -- the more savage the line, the more gasps and laughs from the audience.
In supporting roles, Aaron Orion Baker is affecting as an actor-turned-real estate agent who has an unfortunate encounter with Curtis in the first scene of the second act. Julie Layton has a sweet turn as a no-nonsense nurse who reveals compassion beneath her bluster.
A sharp-tongued look at a disintegrating family, "The Lyons" excels with deft portrayals and fluid staging.
A positive outcome is that it makes your family look like the Happy Hollisters by comparison.
Max and Louie Productions presents this show in the COCA Blackbox Theatre, 325 Trinity Ave., University City, now through Sunday. For more information, visit maxandlouie.com.