NEW YORK -- The Jewish mother. She's been a fixture of our pop culture ever since, well, it feels like biblical times.
There's the good kind: Stubborn, loyal, thinks her kids are the best thing since a nice sliced pumpernickel – and will make damned sure everyone else thinks so, too.
And there's the bad kind: to wit, Rita Lyons, in Nicky Silver's new play "The Lyons," a character played with such dexterity, humor and spot-on timing by the wonderful Linda Lavin that you nearly forget the pain she's inflicting at every turn.
Her kids the best thing since sliced bread? Pfft. Rita tells her daughter she might want to get her little boy tested, because he seems, well, retarded.
"Just moderately," says the loving grandma. "It's not a criticism."
Even worse for a Jewish mother, she tells her son, a writer of short stories, that he lacks talent. "You've had a dozen years to write your way out of mediocre obscurity," she says, as always with a devastating calmness. "And you've failed."
Yet "The Lyons," which opened Tuesday off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, is hardly a sitcom portrayal of the Jewish mother from hell, despite the broad brushstrokes and Silver's obvious talent (one imagines even Rita would acknowledge it) with a one-liner.
Indeed, it's a credit to both the play and Lavin's terrific work that one leaves the theater not laughing at Rita's outrages – well, maybe a little – but empathizing with her, and perhaps feeling a little jealous, too.
For as ludicrously unappealing as her circumstances are, this is one older woman who knows that it's not all about the needs of others – it's about her needs, too, and she isn't afraid to turn the world upside down to fulfill them, yes, even in her 60s.
"I'm still alive, and I have to find a way to try to feel something," she says toward the end, and so what if everything else she's saying may be totally meshugana? You almost want to say, "Mazel tov, Rita!"
Or at least, mazel tov, Linda Lavin, for taking on this juicy part. Lavin had a couple of big opportunities this fall when not one but two productions she was in – "Follies" in Washington and "Other Desert Cities" at Lincoln Center – moved to Broadway. She opted for Silver's play instead.
One can see why. Silver has written one of his better works in years, one that moves at a crackling pace, peopled by fleshy, interesting characters – including the two smaller roles, a nurse and a real estate broker. Director Mark Brokaw keeps it moving fluidly, helped along by a uniformly excellent cast.
Among them is a terrifically sour Dick Latessa as Rita's dying husband, Ben, a man who sees his imminent fate as a license to speak as bluntly – i.e. profanely – as he wishes.
As we meet the couple, they sit in Ben's hospital room, he hooked up to tubes, she sifting through decorating magazines, planning her new living room – the one he'll never see. She muses about colors; he lobs back curses.
"This cancer eating away at you has put you in a terrible mood," she observes wryly. "You THINK?" he growls back.
If this seems dysfunctional, wait `til the kids get there. Daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) is a single mom of two, a recovering alcoholic, and extremely needy. Son Curtis (an effective Michael Esper, in a tough part), is sensitive and cynical, lives with a man none of the family has ever met, and suffers from his father's obvious disdain over his sexual orientation.
The family has been broken for years. Suddenly they're drawn together by Ben's impending death, and no one has any idea what will emerge when the dust clears.
Silver handles the tragic circumstances with his usual deft comedic touch. "I'm not going to relive the Hindenburg of my childhood," says Curtis. Very occasionally the dialogue sounds a little less than genuine: "Whatever your childhood was, it's an old book and the pages are faded," Rita tells her son.
That line comes in a startling monologue Rita gets to deliver, filled with long-harbored rage, regret, and disappointment, but also hope and a gritty determination to move ahead, even in the questionable way she's chosen.
When she finally leaves the stage, you may feel relief. You may also sense the gaping hole she leaves behind.
Luckily, Rita isn't YOUR mom. You can watch her and just enjoy. But hurry, because the Vineyard Theatre is small, and if there's justice, Lavin's expert performance will be one of the hotter tickets of the off-Broadway season.