Watching Tribes, a new drama about a deaf son falling in love and finding his independence amid a close-knit, hyper-articulate, constantly arguing family, a theatergoer might experience the proceedings much the way Billy, that deaf son, often views his relatives: It’s rambunctiously compelling and pleasantly intriguing, something you want to love—and yet it’s ultimately difficult to decipher.
The family is its own tribe, a self-contained, codependent, self-styled bohemian clan in an unnamed English city. Its members argue with each other, one-up each other, and mostly disdain those who aren’t up to their verbal sparring—“No hawkers, no traders and no one who doesn’t know who Dvorak as is,” as Billy eventually puts it.
Tribes, which opened Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theatre, was written by the young British playwright Nina Raine, and it earned her an Olivier nomination for best new play last year. It’s sharp and insightful, and frequently very funny. For its first two-thirds it’s totally engrossing, a probing look at people who talk constantly but don’t listen, who think themselves enlightened and empathetic but are ultimately selfish narcissists.
The youngest of three grown children living at home, Billy (Russell Harvard, a deaf actor giving a wonderfully rich performance) has been raised in the hearing world, trained to lip-read and not sign. “Out of principle,” explains Christopher (Jeff Perry), the cheerfully pedantic father. “We didn’t want to make you part of a minority world.” When Billy meets a woman, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who grew up with two deaf parents and is now losing her own hearing—and he finally learns sign language from her—he is exposed to a different tribe, the deaf world, where for the first time he doesn’t feel left out. He is torn between the two tribes, and he struggles to find a home in either one.
Director David Cromer, returning to the space where he wowed critics and audiences three years ago with his vibrantly cobweb-free reinterpretation of Our Town, here provides a similarly environmental production (with scenic design by Scott Pask), with a well-lived-in kitchen placed in the middle of the theater, audience surrounding it, all the better for this emotionally sprawling family to sprawl around the stage.
The play opens in the middle of a meal, with the family around a long dining table covered with books, wine glasses and bits of food, all of them simultaneously eating and talking. Most of the action takes place in this kitchen, as the family members come and go and circle each other. Christopher is trying to teach himself Chinese but has no patience for his kids. His wife, Beth (Mare Winningham), is a novelist who mostly just bickers with her husband. The oldest child, Daniel (Will Brill), is attempting, unsuccessfully, to write a dissertation about the inability to express feelings with words, while also occasionally hearing voices in his head. And Dan and Billy’s sister, Ruth (Gayle Rankin), is trying to be an opera singer but can’t find her voice. It is only Billy who can finally get everyone’s attention, and he does it by refusing to speak. The metaphors abound, layered atop each other, blending together. It’s a symphony.
But then there is that last third, after Billy has grown comfortable in the deaf world and moved away from his family—and the play’s heretofore tight construction loses its rhythm. The heretofore seemingly upstanding Billy, who has put his lip-reading skills to use transcribing video-only surveillance tapes for police, is discovered to be fabricating dialogue. Without Billy around, Daniel, who has always been devoted to his brother, develops a debilitating stutter, and his so-called “auditory hallucinations” become so frequent and loud they drown out people talking to him. Near the end, Billy and Daniel seem to speak to each other without using any words at all.
The point, it seems, is that the connections among family are stronger than the divisions over mere language. But mostly these parts feel like off notes.
Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, which was titled merely The Lady From Dubuque when it closed after 12 performances on Broadway in 1980, opened Monday night at the new Pershing Square Signature Center in its first major New York revival. It is another play full of people screaming at each other, and it is a far less pleasant one.