There used to be a television sitcom called Life with the Lyons. A better title for Nicky Silver's Broadway import would be Death with the Lyons, or perhaps even Living Death with the Lyons.
It's a very funny, quirky Manhattan play from a writer, as he's the first to point out, completely unknown here; I saw one of his pieces off-Broadway years ago and left less than impressed.
This time, I'm impressed, even if the Jewish family tensions are obviously first hand and the hero's an un-applauded gay writer with disastrous parents, an alcoholic sister, psychopathic stalking tendencies and a general problem with addressing humanity: "Hi-ho, Silver" as the Lone Ranger used to cry as he rode off into the sunset.
Silver's usual New York director, Mark Brokaw, has come across to direct an exceptionally good British cast led by the wonderful Isla Blair as the matriarchal nightmare figure, Rita Lyons, checking out the interior decoration catalogues as Nicholas Day's suddenly dyspeptic, foul-mouthed husband Ben lies dying of cancer in a hospital bed.
They are joined by Charlotte Randle as daughter Lisa, struggling with two sons, a drink problem, a violent ex-husband she still loves and her own sense of worth; and Tom Ellis's humiliated, unloved Curtis whose claims on a love life are suspect and anyway derided; dysfunctional, or what? They make Rory Kinnear's vitriolic tribe in his new play The Herd at the Bush look like pussy-cats.
But at least they're Jewish, and funny, even when they're tearing each other to shreds. One of the things I like most about the play is that you're never quite sure where it's going next, but still the playwright never loses control. Curtis ends up in his father's bed on the same ward, with the same nurse (a delightful cameo from Katy Secombe) after the surprise second scene in an apartment he's thinking of buying.
What's this about, you think, as Curtis plays cat and mouse, deal or no deal, with the good-looking estate agent and (natch) out-of-work actor of Ben Aldridge? What happens next explains the jibes in the first scene, and there's a satisfying crash of catharsis as both grown-up children try and deal with the thunderbolt unleashed by Rita.
The moral, if there is one, is that it's never too late to start over, however horrible you are. And the message? Families suck, we all hate one another and you'd better just get on with your life and deal with it. Cheers, Nicky Silver, we know you don't really mean all that, and thank you for helping us get through two hours of very enjoyable sitcom-style theatre. The design of Jonathan Fensom is terrific, too.