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

Joseph’s Bengal Tiger prowls the SF Playhouse stage

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Marines (Craig Marker, left, and Gabriel Marin, right) guard a hungry tiger (Will Marchetti) in the bombed-out Baghdad Zoo in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Below: A night raid goes very badly for translator Musa (Kuros Charney, left) an Iraqi couple (Pomme Koch and Sarita Ocon) and for Kev, a volatile American solder (Marker). Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

The last time San Francisco Playhouse produced a play by Rajiv JosephAnimals Out of Paper in 2009 — the young playwright was becoming one of the hottest writers in the country. TheatreWorks produced his The North Pool in 2011, just as his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was preparing to bow on Broadway in a starry production that featured Robin Williams as the titular caged beast.

Joseph, with his Tony Award and Pulitzer nominations, has fully emerged as an American playwright of note and his work is back at San Francisco Playhouse to launch a new season, the second in the stellar theater on Post Street.

In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Joseph has crafted a challenging war/ghost story that wrestles with the very notion of god (or, if you prefer, God). This world and the next intermingle in the rubble of our desert war as Joseph examines the costs — physical and spiritual — of brutality.

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Through performances and design, director Bill English creates a provocative world that allows the poetry of the dead and the garish reality of the living to blend in surprising, moving and perplexing ways. It helps that English is also a masterful set designer who places the action in the remains of a palace that, with the assistance of a few moving set pieces, becomes a topiary garden in a Hussein family manse, a military translator’s office, a hospital room, a bombed-out leper colony and the remnants of the Baghdad Zoo. Dan Reed’s lights and Steven Klems’ sound design add texture and mood to the setting, which is somewhere between dream and waking.

Without a clear protagonist, Joseph’s play is collage of Iraq experiences ranging from the American military (Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin as Marines) to the Iraqi civilian (Kuros Charney as Musa, a former gardener now working as a translator for the Americans). And in between, there are beings from another realm — a recently deceased Bengal tiger from the Baghdad Zoo (a deadpan Will Marchetti), Uday Hussein (Pomme Koch) carrying the severed head of his brother, Qusay, and a young Iraqi woman (Livia Demarchi) tortured and killed by the Hussein brothers.

Joseph doesn’t go down conventional roads with this story in any way and dispatches sympathy and empathy from the start. No one here is terribly likable, but then again, this is death and war. The Americans are ignorant, money-grubbing animals, while the tiger is an admitted atheist deep in thought about his place in the universe. Death brings vast intelligence to the ghosts who, for whatever reason, are still stuck roaming the human realm, and the living just seem to grow less intelligent.

English’s cast brings ferocious authenticity to Joseph’s tricky playing field, and while it’s hard to remain fully emotionally involved in this two-hour play, its provocative power is undeniable. The presence of Uday Hussein is especially troubling — the thought of that kind of evil never quite leaving and continuing to inspire more evil fogs the play with the mist of hopelessness. The only real kindness in the play is shown by a leper (Sarita Ocon) who comforts a man whose damage, greed and selfishness have brought him to his inevitable end.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a strange, prickly play — not a crowd pleaser so much as an act of thoughtful provocation filled with vivid portraits of ghosts and humans wandering a wasteland of their own creation.

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues through Nov. 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit