East Bay actress turns in another memorable performance

Col—Oakes—The Lyons

Col—Oakes—The LyonsLara Hakeem shines in ‘The Lyons’

A gang of lions is called a pride, of course. But in the family unit that is assembled onstage in “The Lyons”, now playing at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre, there seems to be little for them to take pride in, unless it is the high level of self-obsession that each displays. Ben Lyons may be excused a little selfishness as he’s dying, less so the family that surrounds his hospital bedside, being completely absorbed in their own concerns. And yes, Nicky Silver’s play is indeed a comedy as absurd humor often springs forth from the direst situations. So if your taste runs to humor on the darkest end of the spectrum take delight; “The Lyons” puts the ‘fun’ into dysfunctional families.

If this particular pride of ‘Lyons’ aren’t quite as regal as the African jungle cats, they’re certainly as savage and quite sarcastic as well; the verbal sniping that ensues is well-aimed, rapid-fire and laugh-out-loud lethal. But zingers alone do not a play make. These caustic characters are marked by their human complexities, chief of which is that each are extremely emotionally needy. That we first see Rita Lyons sitting by her husband’s hospital bedside poring through decorating magazines in order to redo the living room after her husband dies is no casual choice by playwright Silver. Each member of the Lyons family sorely needs to know how to live and needs the emotional room to do so; all here are emotionally stunted and suffocated by each other.

Rounding out the family circle is daughter Lisa, an alcoholic single mother, and gay son Curtis, a short-story writer for whom the boundary between fact and fiction is somewhat nebulous. It takes a special cast of actors to make this kind of material fly; a group that can dance on the delicate balance that allows for acidic acerbity to be served with aplomb while not becoming snarky stereotypes. Happily here at 2nd Story the daffy and dyspeptic dialogue is delivered by actors displaying real depth of character.

There is a sense of aggrieved authority that informs Vince Petronio’s portrayal of Ben Lyons and adds gravitas to his crankily obscene outbursts. Similarly Paula Faber is strident in her self-regard onstage as wife Rita but this is buoyed by a real sense of the character’s inner emptiness. A serving of sarcasm from Kevin Broccoli can excoriate the strong and even his glances can be deadly withering but it is his utter sincerity that strengthens his performance as son Curtis.

Which brings us to East Bay resident Lara Hakeem (above, with Kevin  Broccoli) as daughter Lisa Lyons. A delightful woman off stage and on, Lara Hakeem has an impish edge to her personality; she always seems as if she’s barely able to contain a deep wellspring of inner mischievousness. The sheer delight she conveys onstage is infectious, you can’t help but smile when she’s around and 2nd Story audience members will well remember her as Poopay, the time-traveling dominatrix in “Communicating Doors”, as Celimene in “The Misanthrope”, Armando in “The Learned Ladies” and as Bette in “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”, all comedic masterworks served well by her sweet slyness.

As the dipsomaniac daughter in “The Lyons” Ms. Hakeem raises high-strung exasperation to an art form. Lisa’s moods and needs seem to spin on a dime and Ms. Hakeem is well able to whirl like a dervish in the midst of these onstage shame spirals. That might be enough but Lara also emanates with the deep need that Lisa has, even while firing off a quick acerbic riposte.

Like many a performer, offstage Ms. Hakeem juggles a variety of roles, working as a yoga and aerobic instructor at Bristol Total Fitness when she’s not toiling as retail interior designer for CVS. During a break from all, I spoke with her briefly about the art of creating comedy from all the serious problems facing “The Lyons.”

Though wickedly funny, “The Lyons is not for the faint of heart,” she cheerfully tells me, adding “these characters curse and divulge and pour their souls out whether you agree with them or not. I love the wickedness of it. In a world of political correctness we sometimes get lost in what we need to do or say in order to live without conflict.” She further adds, “I love the flaws of Lisa Lyons, and these flaws make you think of how we treat one another and how we want to be treated and to accept that you don’t always get what you need. This dark comedy really makes you think hard” about these issues.

It has always seemed to me that comedy itself is based in need and desire. “The Lyons” family are all isolated from and yet in deep need of each other. I asked Lara to elaborate on that. “Need,” she tells me, “is central to comedy and drama. As actors onstage we are constantly trying to get something from the other characters. The comedy in “The Lyons” is drawn from the struggle to achieve this end and the shameless laughter that ensues when these characters fail at their attempts to have their needs satisfied as well as the victory of the other person preventing the fulfillment of the need. That puts the ‘dark’ in dark comedy.”

“The Lyons” is not without a sense of sentiment or hope for these folks we come to get to know, but it sure ain’t all sweetness and light, so what’s the hardest part of that, apart from getting the laugh? “I think the biggest challenge”, Lara continues, “is that we are smacking the audience hard with this subject and it’s not a subtle love tap. The new Downstage performance space takes intimate to a whole new level and because of that there’s no tiptoeing around onstage, you have to jump in or you deny the truth of the story. That puts us actors in a very vulnerable place, much like the characters we play, we need the audience to like us even though we’re saying and doing not nice things. The reality is we all deal or avoiding dealing with these subjects all the time in life. Life imitates art…who said that?”

I don’t know, Lara, but I do know that the line “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” was attributed to, among others, the actor Edmund Kean. 2nd Story Theatre has turned this old chestnut inside out though. The cast of  “The Lyons”, ably directed by Mark Peckham, makes this razor-sharp and macabre comedy look effortless. It’s living that’s really hard and that’s no joke.

“The Lyons” at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market Street, Warren, now through February 16. For tickets, call 401/247-4200; www.2ndstorytheatre.com.

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