Theater Review - Tribes (NY)

Off Broadway provides an opportunity to see new talent and explore unusual topics.  Tribes,” a new play by Nina Raine, which was originally commissioned and first presented by the English Stage Company at the Roya lCourt Theatre in 2010, covers new ground. It asks the question: Is it worse to be born hearing-impaired or suffer from this condition later in life?


In this theater in the round or more particularly in the square, we meet a Bohemian –type family, who are close and love to argue. The playwright seems to imply that their behavior is tribal in nature. The parents are writers. There’s sarcastic, foul-mouthed, rumpled dad, Christopher, who loves words, portrayed by Jeff Perry; there’s hard-working mom, heartfelt Beth, played by the winning Mare Winningham, who in a possible homage to “You Can’t Take It With You” is penning a marriage breakdown murder mystery. Mom is chagrined that Dad is annoyed that their three twenty-something children have moved back into the house.


Ruth, acted by Gayle Rankin, who is trying out her opera singing in a local pub, is put down by her brother Daniel, played intensely by Will Brill. But Daniel has his own problems. He has broken up with his girlfriend, whom the family didn’t like and he hears voices, a symptom of a bipolar condition. He is pursuing an academic career, for which his father thinks he is unsuited.


While they scream at each other around the well-worn kitchen table (Scott Pask), Billy, who is profoundly hearing-impaired, is removed from the conversation. He has been brought up reading lips, because his dad thought it was less limiting than “Signing.” When Billy meets Sylvia, the lovely, perfectly–cast Susan Pourfar, who is experiencing progressive and unrelenting hearing loss, he learns to sign and threatens to leave his family if they don’t study and use this skill. They are decimated by his ultimatum, for they love him. Russell Harvard’s fine performance as the outsider, Billy, is remarkable.


David Cromer’s direction stresses the lack of communication between the characters. At times, he uses sur- and subtitles (Jeff Sugg), music and waves of sound ( Daniel Kruger) in this busy play. Sometimes it feels too busy and frustrating because we could not hear everything clearly. However “Tribes” is an interesting new play at the Barrow Street Theatre.

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