Theater: Hear This Loud and Clear -- Tribes One of Year's Best

TRIBES *** 1/2 out of ****

Nina Raine's new drama Tribes is unquestionably one of the best plays of the year. Even its flaws -- notably a second act overstuffed with some unnecessary plot twists -- feel like the flaws of an ambitious young playwright bursting with talent and something to say. It's the sort of talent that makes you listen very carefully.

"Listening" -- and the lack of it -- is exactly what Tribes is about. The show begins as a comic drama centering around a hyper-intellectual, Glass-like family. Dad Christopher (Jeff Perry) publishes dense literary criticism and is learning a Chinese language on the side. Son Daniel (Will Brill) is apparently recovering from some sort of mental breakdown and hears voices when he isn't lambasting everyone else, including sister Ruth, who labors at an opera career by getting gigs in local pubs. Youngest brother Billy (Russell Harvard) is deaf and seemingly everyone's favorite even as he's off in a corner ignoring or oblivious to the torrent of words around him. Mom Beth (Mare Winningham) is the relatively sane center, yet even she is working on a detective novel without bothering to decide in advance whodunit.

But the least demonstrative family member takes center stage when Billy attends a party where he flirts with Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), a young woman who is going deaf. Billy has always resisted sign language, not to mention being drawn into the deaf community. With Sylvia as his entree, suddenly Billy feels at home like he never did before. His growing independence sends shock waves through the family. Billy plans to move out and then a new job as a lip reader for the court system gains him sudden attention in the media. Most dramatically of all, Billy decides he'll only communicate via sign, demanding the rest of his family finally learn the language if they want to speak with him.

This sends the fragile Daniel into a desperate spiral. Always wildly dependent on the younger Billy for solace, affection and attention, Daniel's childhood stutter returns, making it more and more difficult for him to communicate. The prickly father Christopher sees the demand to learn sign as an affront both to the family's upbringing of Billy and a dangerously isolating gesture. And Billy's girlfriend Sylvia finds herself placed in the awkward position of translator just as she's overwhelmed with the emotional fallout from a massive deterioration in hearing.

In other words, this is a rich work bursting with distinctive, funny and frustrating characters who surprise and move us repeatedly. The cast is marvelous throughout (despite modest British accents) and director David Cromer deserves to have as big a hit with this as he did with the landmark revival of Our Town.

He's staged the show in the round for this production. In the UK, Billy's isolation was highlighted by his literal isolation on the stage. Here, with the audience on all four sides, Billy seems more fully incorporated into the family. So it's only in retrospect we realize how much the conversation was bouncing over and around Billy; how often he had to say "What?" when some exchange slipped by him only to be told it didn't matter.

Staging the play in the round has other benefits because it heightens our awareness of listening. We're acutely reminded of this every time someone has their back to us but is speaking; with at least one character on stage who is deaf, it's a constant nudge to let us know we might be hearing what is being said but someone who needs to lip-read would be lost. The very detriment of staging in the round here becomes a positive; the usual frustration of knowing that we can't see an actor's face but that other members of the audience get a perfectly good view is an excellent subliminal underlining of the Billy's existence.

Judicious use of subtitles work well for some of the scenes heavy with signing -- especially when they're turned off. When Billy and Sylvia sign in front of his family and the dialogue isn't always flashed on the subtitle screen, we're shown what it's like for the family to suddenly feel cut off from what is being said. That of course is exactly what Billy experiences every day, a point driven home when a raging argument is suddenly depicted from his point of view and all we hear is a white noise buzz while Billy stands in a corner, the other actors mouthing bits of dialogue we'll never hear. This staging in the round is so successful, I'd almost never want to see it performed in a more traditional set-up, though that's how it debuted in the UK.

The especially important and effective sound design is by Daniel Kluger, who joins a great technical team, including Scott Pask's warm dining room set dominated by a table where the family gathers, spot-on costumes by Tristan Raines and lighting by Keith Parham that subtly echoes the isolation so many characters can feel.

The cast as mentioned is top-notch, taking parts that could easily go over-the-top and keeping them grounded. Will Brill has a tricky role as the flashy, unstable Daniel. If the play pounds home the message of communication too directly by having Daniel revert to stuttering, Brill keeps his fragility and neediness front and center. Russell Harvard is marvelous as Billy, reeling us in with his warmth and empathy and then throwing cold water on our perceptions with his righteous anger. Susan Pourfar has a marvelous turn as Sylvia -- her hearing degenerates throughout the show so Pourfar must subtly show that decline in her speaking voice without seeming too showy. Jeff Parry is always a marvelous presence on stage and delivers here as the aggressively intellectual father who pushes and pushes and pushes others and then is always surprised when they topple over or push back in anger. The other women have less interesting roles but make the most of them. Gayle Rankin scores amusing retorts as the middle sibling, often the one who gets lost in the shuffle. And Mare Winningham turns a secondary role into the stable heart of the family. Her warmth and conviction let you immediately understand why this rather dysfunctional family hasn't fallen apart already.

The script is loaded with such dramatic confrontations that the second act collapse of Daniel and Billy's subplot about problems with his new job feel quite unnecessary (and in the case of the job quite unmotivated). But those are modest reservations. This is a good play by Nina Raine given a great production that ends on a heartfelt, desperate note with two people trying to communicate even as the lights inexorably dim.

The Theater Season 2011-2012 (on a four star scale)

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs ** 1/2
All-American **
All's Well That Ends Well/Shakespeare in the Park **
Assistance **
The Atmosphere Of Memory 1/2 *
Blood Knot at Signature **
Bob *** 1/2
Bonnie & Clyde feature profile of Jeremy Jordan
Broadway By The Year: 1997 ** 1/2
Carrie ** 1/2
The Cherry Orchard with Dianne Wiest **
Chinglish * 1/2
Close Up Space *
Crane Story **
Cymbeline at Barrow Street Theatre ***
Dedalus Lounge * 1/2
Early Plays (Eugene O'Neill at St. Ann's Warehouse) *
Ernani at Met w Angela Meade *** 1/2
An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin ***
Follies *** 1/2
Fragments ***
Galileo with F. Murray Abraham **
The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess *** 1/2
Godspell ** 1/2
Goodbar * 1/2
Hair ***
Hand To God ***
Hero: The Musical * 1/2
How The World Began * 1/2
Hugh Jackman: Back On Broadway ***
Irving Berlin's White Christmas ***
It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later *** 1/2
King Lear at Public with Sam Waterston **
Krapp's Last Tape with John Hurt ***
Lake Water **
Leo ***
Love's Labor's Lost at the PublicLab ** 1/2
Lysistrata Jones *
Man And Boy * 1/2
The Man Who Came To Dinner **
Maple And Vine **
Master Class w Tyne Daly ** 1/2
Measure For Measure/Shakespeare in the Park ***
Milk Like Sugar ***
Mission Drift * 1/2
Misterman ** 1/2
The Mountaintop ** 1/2
Newsies **
Pigpen's The Nightmare Story *** 1/2
Once *** 1/2
Olive and The Bitter Herbs ** 1/2
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever * 1/2
One Arm ***
Other Desert Cities on Broadway ** 1/2
Private Lives **
Queen Of The Mist ** 1/2
Radio City Christmas Spectacular ** 1/2
Relatively Speaking * 1/2
Richard III w Kevin Spacey at BAM ***
The Road To Mecca ** 1/2
Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History Of The Robot War ** 1/2
The Select (The Sun Also Rises) ** 1/2
Seminar **
Septimus & Clarissa *** 1/2
Shlemiel The First ** 1/2
Silence! The Musical * 1/2
69 Degrees South * 1/2
Song From The Uproar **
Sons Of The Prophet *** 1/2
Sontag: Reborn *
Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark * 1/2
Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays **
Stick Fly **
The Submission **
Super Night Shot ** 1/2
Sweet and Sad **
The Table ** 1/2
Titus Andronicus at Public with Jay O. Sanders * 1/2
Tribes *** 1/2
The Ugly One **
Unnatural Acts ***
Venus In Fur ***
We Live Here **
Wild Animals You Should Know ** 1/2
Wit ** 1/2
Zarkana **



Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

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