The set of “The Lyons” has just 10 seconds to change from a private hospital room to an empty apartment.
But the quick set changes are just one of the many challenges that the play presented, said UCLA lecturer and director Scott Alan Smith.
The Road Theatre Company’s production of “The Lyons” will run at The Road Theatre in North Hollywood until July 16. Smith said the play’s quick pace and complicated characters presented challenges that required innovative theatric solutions.
The play centers around the disconnected Lyons family as it comes together around the cancer-stricken Ben Lyons, the family’s father. In Ben’s hospital room, elements of comedy expose the family’s dysfunctional nature as it faces Ben’s foreboding future.
“It’s four family members in a room talking and dealing with their hidden weakness,” Smith said. “It’s wickedly funny, yet it’s very emotional. It goes quite deep.”
The Road Theatre Company has wanted to stage “The Lyons” for years, Smith said. Smith, who admires the work of Nicky Silver, said it is rare for the playwright’s works to be staged in Los Angeles and thus jumped at the opportunity to direct “The Lyons.” But the company was unable to produce the play until it received rights last year.
“The Lyons” is both familiar territory and new ground for the company’s history. The Road Theatre Company is known for its dysfunctional family dramas, such as Edward Albee’s “The Play About The Baby,” which was produced by the company earlier this season, Smith said. However, “The Lyons” is the company’s first comedy in all of its 26 years.
“This was a first for us, and that was a big thing to grapple with,” Smith said.
A significant challenge the play presented was the changing of set backgrounds. The play changes rapidly between two locations: a hospital room and an empty apartment. However, Smith worked with the set designer to create a set background that can change within 10 seconds.
“It functions as a metaphor for the play (in addition to taking) us from one location to the other,” Smith said.
Another challenge was the quick tonal shift between fast-paced comedy in the first act to a deeper emotional drama in the second act. Making the play flow smoothly from one mood to the next without alienating the audience was testing but rewarding, Smith said.
“(The tonal shift) was challenging, but this is one of (the) best experiences I’ve ever had in my 20-something years of directing,” Smith said.
The production process for “The Lyons” began in early 2017 with casting in February and rehearsals from March onwards. Since the company required an entire backup cast in addition to the opening cast, Smith had to direct two separate sets of casts, making the process even more complicated.
Verity Branco, a member of the Road Theatre Company, plays the role of Ben’s daughter, Lisa Lyons. Branco’s biggest challenge was to present Lisa, a recovering alcoholic and single mother, in a way that wasn’t one-dimensional.
Lisa’s family describes her as exhausting and tiring, something Branco approached with an open and realistic mind in order to avoid the family’s limiting emotions toward the character. It would be easy to play Lisa in a one-note fashion, Branco said, so she decided to bring depth to the role. She brought in personal experiences as well to create a more dynamic and interesting character.
“(I have) been finding ways to make her seem (like) less of a mess and finding the ways that she’s afraid to be a mess outwardly or how she hides it,” Branco said.
Allan Wasserman plays Ben Lyons in the second cast and said he had to pay acute attention to the dynamics between the characters, since most of the interactions between the characters are sharp and quick.
“It’s a lot of really listening and being in the moment,” Wasserman said. “You have to live it for the first time every time you do it.”
But the challenges of the fast-paced play were well worth the struggle, Smith said.
“For all of the characters, there’s something about when faced with adversity, they have humor at the ready,” Smith said. “Hopefully the audience will hug their families tightly because they are lucky to have a family not as dysfunctional as the Lyons.”