In contemporary writing for the theater, it can sometimes seem as if there's an undeclared competition to determine which playwright can produce the most dysfunctional American family play out of all the dysfunctional American family plays going.
The first of this week's competing entries is John Pollono's Lost Girls, at the Lucille Lortel, in which the down-to-her-last-nerve Maggie (Piper Perabo) prepares to leave for work in a Manchester, New Hampshire snowstorm and discovers her car is missing.
Calling on ex-husband Lou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a cop, to help locate the missing automobile, she realizes her daughter is also missing, and the conclusion to which she and mom Linda (Tasha Lawrence) leap is that the girl has been kidnapped.
Every so often interrupting the frenzy, a wall in Richard Hoover's rendering of the Maggie-Linda home pivots to reveal a motel room in which a girl (Lizzy DeClement) and a boy (Josh Green). Audience members have every right to assume they're the missing person and the boy with whom she's gone missing. Slowly, the girl changes from a spoiled young woman taking advantage of a gullible friend to something much more tender, and the boy changes from a dupe to someone much more appealing.
In the meantime, Lou has brought second wife Penny (Meghann Fahy) along while he's calling in favors from police precincts throughout the state to track down car and girl. The tension that ensues having to do not only with the alarming situation but also with the clash of personalities in the room mounts.
More than anything, Lost Girls, which was originally produced by Los Angeles's Rogue Machine Theatre, is a study of volatile Maggie. Wound tightly and of course further agitated by her daughter's disappearance, she has no patience for her mother, for Lou or for Lou's bride, and she repeatedly lashes out at them. In some respects, she repudiates Penny most, although Lou's young bride has more of a temperate head on her than Maggie at first sees.
Maggie's relationship with Lou isn't much less abrasive, but Pollono's aim is to follow Maggie's transition to someone more forgiving of a daughter not unlike herself at that age and more forgiving and accepting of those equally upset around her during the literal and figurative storm raging outside.
Directed by Jo Bonney with her usual steady hand and a grip on Pollono's humanity, Perabo is a whirlwind of bad temper. Aside perhaps from a shared inner fire, she's quite different from the FBI agent Annie Baker she played exceedingly well on USA's well-done Covert Affairs. (The series has apparently ended, more's the pity.) Perabo's Maggie is a cat on another kind of hot tin roof, but every bit as easily roused to fury ultimately turned inward.
Pollono's sympathy for all his characters is realized in every performance. Though Maggie is the focal figure here -- certainly as delineated by Perabo -- Lawrence, Moss-Bachrach, Fahy, DeClement and Green are right at her level. That Lawrence and Moss-Bachrach are skilled isn't surprising to anyone who's seen them before, but Fahy, DeClement and Green are newer to the stage and already impressively adept.
By the way, Pollono has a Lost Girls trick up his sleeve that few will see coming. It won't be given away here, of course, but maybe a single alert won't spoil appreciation of this commanding family drama: Listen for the name "McSorley's".
As dysfunctional as Pollono's dysfunctional family is, those riled members have nothing on Taylor Mac's dysfunctional four in Hir, the title, of course, alluding to the third-person pronoun preferred by transgender individuals -- along with "ze" for the third-person plural.
The four-member unit, on blunt view at Playwrights Horizons, is presided over by mother Paige (Kristine Nielsen), who, among her many idiosyncrasies, prefers an untidy house where laundry, whether freshly laundered or not, is thrown about the way leaves litter sidewalks in the fall. She's also dressed husband Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), a recent stroke victim, in woman's clothes and treats him as if she were training a dog to roll over.
The Hir audience gets to see Paige swing into action when older son Isaac (Cameron Skoggins) returns to the dysfunctional fold eager to clean up the place however he can. The fourth part of this rectangle of human psychological wreckage is Max (Tom Phelan), already hoping to become a happy transgender personage.
(N. B.: The magnets on the refrigerator decorating David Zinn's set for a Stockton, California home include the sequential letters "LGBT," just to confirm the specialized milieu.)
For two acts, Paige attempts to rule the cuckoo nest, as Isaac attempts to right whatever he can. He actually does at one point by picking up the clothes that have been tossed about, but Max proves right when predicting the tantrum to which Paige will indulge herself on returning to the tidied abode.
In a program note, playwright Mac -- who's been having a busy and successful time of it these past few years as a performer in New York City and elsewhere -- explains that his Stockton hometown is one he and others deviating from a supposed norm flee when and if the opportunity arises. So it appears as if Hir is something of an autobiographical piece.
It may or may not be, but it's a frenetic piece that rapidly becomes tiresome. "I'm all about the metaphor," Paige says and gets a laugh, but why? Apparently the audience is meant to be wowed by the (in)human tornado Paige is, and perhaps some will find her irresistible, but again why?
More than that, Hir does something rarely inviting, which is that it allows an actor -- in this instance the always estimable Oreskes -- to be ill-used. Asking him to behave as the cross-dressed, smeared-makeup Arnold must behave while obeying the taunting Paige isn't a help. "My penis is my best friend," Oreskes gets to say, and he's a sport about it. Nevertheless.
Directed by Niegel Smith, Oreskes, Scoggins and Phelan man up, so to speak, in their roles. Then there's Nielsen, whose mannerisms are likely to be honored any day now with the adjective "Nielsenesque."
She can drop them, it seems, as she did recently in A. R. Gurney's What I Did Last Summer and gave a performance of new depth. Usually, however, she just goes with them, and perhaps is hired because of them. But they've become so predictable that those of us who've seen her work them before wait for them to reappear. And then, they are, fast becoming too much of a good thing.