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What’s Funny About a Toxic Jewish Mother?

“The Lyons,” Nicky Silver‘s play, now on Broadway at the Cort Theater for an open-ended run, is billed as a comedy. When I saw it recently, the audience around me – mostly Jewish, comfortable and over 65 – seemed to love it, laughing, cheering and applauding (as have the vast majority of the critics). I did not love it, and I’ve been trying to puzzle out why that is.

From the first moments, Linda Lavin, playing Rita Lyons, a brittle, bitter Jewish mother of a certain age, has the audience cheering her. (If she is Rita Lyons, shouldn’t the play be called The Lyonses? Unless the title is making a point, and she is the Lyons, singular. Confusing, unsettling, oddly like my experience of this play – a joke I don’t get.) Lavin deserves her recent Tony nomination. Rita embodies the negative aspects of the Jewish mother stereotype (perpetually dispapointed, nagging, manipulative and undermining) along with a dash of Jewish American Princess (materialistic, indifferent to sex, and selfish). She’s terrible to her (understandably crabby) dying husband Ben, impatient for him to get on with it so she can redecorate; she sees her children, Lisa and Curtis, as colossal (though not surprising) disappointments.

Her ostensible expressions of love and support are barbed with dissatisfaction and contempt. As the action of the play progresses, we learn that she has felt stifled and trapped in her marriage, but that made me feel contempt rather than sympathy. She stayed in a toxic situation, making it exponentially more toxic. What did anyone ever do to her to deserve her withering scorn? And why does the audience find it so hilarious, and moving?

The message seems to be that family is toxic, and you should get the hell away if you want to survive and find love.

The audience’s appreciation had a rebellious sense of you-go-girl, let-it-all-hang-out release; they cheered Rita on as she tells everyone how disappointing they are and how she’s never liked any of them. The adored her, and left the play all smiles. I’ve talked to people in their sixties who loved “The Lyons,” who found it bold and funny, painful and angry. Maybe I’m the wrong generation for this play. Silver himself is 51. I don’t see anything funny or even entertaining about isolated, self-desctrutive and cruel characters who lie to each other and themselves, in lieu of connection or acceptance. Further Silver’s version of the Jewish mother/JAP stereotype feels not just emptily nasty but stale here. I have a bewildering sense that I missed something, or that I’m being humorlessly politically correct. So many people have enjoyed this play. I’m interested in what they saw that I did not see, and welcome comments from readers who’ve seen the play. Tell me what I missed!