Aurora’s Lyons subdues its roar

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Nicholas Pelczar’s (left) Curtis visits his ailing father, Ben (Will Marchetti) and acerbic mother, Rita (Ellen Ratner) in Nicky Silver’s The Lyons at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Ratner and Marchetti’s Rita and Ben suffer the visit of daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates). Photos by David Allen

There are breathtaking moments – literally, your capacity to process oxygen is shut down – in Nicky Silver’s script of The Lyons now at the Aurora Theatre. Silver takes an average situation – a patriarch in the final days of an illness is tended to by his wife and two adult children – and makes it painfully funny by exposing every sharp edge he can find and slicing through anything in his way. Those breathtaking moments usually involve some sort of truth telling at the expense of someone else’s fragile or carefully crafted sense of self, but the inability to breathe is often followed by a huge laugh.

Or at least it feels like there should be a big laugh. Director Barbara Damashek’s production is dialed to 6 while Silver’s script seems to call for at least double that. What should be ferocious and funny comes across as rather pallid and only slightly amusing. Perhaps there was a fear that playing it too big and mean in Aurora’s intimate space would alienate rather than amuse the audience, and maybe it would, but there seems to be a whole lot of pent-up energy in this script that never gets released.

The Lyons family is perfectly recognizable and relatable as stage families go, but they’re also nightmarish, annoying and incredibly incisive when it comes to shredding one another (and therein lies the entertainment value). Matriarch Rita (Ellen Ratner) is the primary architect of the horror. She seems so sensible and lovely, but then the things that come out of her mouth are just astonishing

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Flipping through a home decorating magazine at the hospital bedside of her dying husband, she muses on changes she’d like to make to their living room and casually (and caustically) notes that he won’t be around to enjoy the new decor. But it’s not like her husband, Ben (Will Marchetti) gives a damn. When the children arrive, daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates) and son Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar), the family portrait comes into full focus: this group has no kindness, compassion or concern for anyone. The dominant theme among these Lyons is self-involvement to a pathological degree. A grandmother thinks nothing of dismissing her young grandchild as “retarded” and a husband has no problem sharing the fact that he can’t stand his gay son. The daughter is in and out of recovery and the son, a writer, can’t seem to relate to actual human beings. In short, they all deserve each other.

The only voice of sanity is a stern nurse (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) who ends up caring for multiple members of this tribe. There’s also an appearance by an actor (Joe Estlack) who has a bad reaction to the Lyons brand of interaction. But mostly we have here an insular group fighting through and interlocking their psychoses.

The performances feel restrained and fall too often into sitcom rhythms without breaking into the ferocity needed to make this play feel less like a retread of dysfunctional family tropes and more of a manic comedy about the extreme narcissism of the complacent upper middle class. Seems like an outrageous comedy has been de-clawed, or, in other words, this Lyons has been tamed.

Nicky Silver’s The Lyons continues through March 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Mamet with heart (and humor) at Aurora

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Donny (Paul Vincent O’Connor, center) scolds Bobby (Rafael Jordan, left) as Teach (James Carpenter) smolders in the background in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of American Buffalo by David Mamet. Below: Two Bay Area greats, O’Connor and Carpenter, square off as Donny and Teach. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company concludes its season with David Mamet’s American Buffalo, an early (1975) Mamet play that has all the telltale Mamet qualities (staccato dialogue sprayed in four-letter directions, life among conmen and criminals, pointed criticism of the “great American way,” etc.), but unlike some of the later, more intentionally provocative and disturbing work, this one has a core of compassion and human connection.

Part of that is Mamet’s play and part of it is director Barbara Damashek’s production headed by two Bay Area greats: James Carpenter and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Watching them spar is theatrical bliss.

I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the pleasures of director Barbara Damashek’s production is how much of the humor she and her actors bring out of Mamet’s 1975 script. Sure, there’s rough language and violence and even blood at one point. But after the overly long setup of Act 1, the desperation of Donny and Teach reaches near-hilarious levels in Act 2.

It’s almost like they’re a low-life Abbott and Costello wrangling over an important phone call (the fact that it’s on a rotary dial phone somehow makes it even funnier) or figuring out how to crack a safe, which neither of them can do.

Carpenter and O’Connor know how to find the comedy without losing touch with the grim reality these characters inhabit.

Read the full review here.
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David Mamet’s American Buffalo continues an extended run through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are 32 to $50. Cal 510-843-4822 or visit

Aurora announces 18th season

Aurora Theatre Company artistic director Tom Ross announced today his Berkeley company’s 18th season, which stems from the theme “Family and Fortune.” In addition to classics and newer works, the season includes a world premiere by Joel Drake Johnson (pictured at right).


The season opens in August with Clifford Odets’ 1935 Awake and Sing, directed by Joy Carlin. The classic play about an extended Jewish family in the Bronx, had a hit Broadway revival three years ago. Carlin, something of a Bay Area legend as both actor and director, first helmed this play for Berkeley Repertory Theatre 24 years ago. (Run dates: Aug. 21-Sept. 27)

From the classic to the profane: Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig continues the season in October. The play wonders what happens when a good-looking guy falls for a plus-size woman. Barbara Damashek directs. (Oct. 30-Dec. 6)

The holidays will rock and roll once again with the return of last year’s hit The Coverlettes Cover Christmas. Volcaists Darby Gould, Katie Guthorn and Carol Bozzio Littleton reprise their roles as a fictitious ’60s girl group making the season bright with beehives and tight harmonies. (Dec. 9-27)

The new year brings the world premiere of Chicago playwright Johnson’s The First Grade, which originated as one of Aurora’s Global Age project winners last season. Ross directs this journey of a woman whose attempts to do something good lead her into chaos involving first graders, a depressed daughter, a Ritalin-addicted grandson and the ex-husband who still shares her home. (Jan. 22-Feb. 28)

Barbara Oliver, one of the Aurora’s founding members, returns to direct Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, in a new version by David Eldridge created for London’s Donmar Warehouse. In what sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines, the Borkman family is struggling since the imprisonment of John Gabriel Borkman, a bank manager who speculated illegally with his clients’ money, ultimately losing the financial investments of hundred of people. (April 2-May 9)

Closing the season is the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate directed by Robin Stanton, who has been seen at the Aurora with Betrayed, The Busy World Is Hushed and Permanent Collection. In this play, dubbed “one of the Top 10 plays of the year” by Entertainment Weekly, three teenage misfits in Salem, Ore., discover they’re connected by a sex scandal that has rocked their home town. (June 11-July 18)

Subscriptions to the Aurora’s new season range from $130-$235. Single tickets are $15-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information. All performances are at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.