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Why can't you move a step without an argument starting in this house? —Ruth

Because we love each other! —Christopher

Yeah. Like a straitjacket.— Ruth
Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar
(Photo credit: Gregory Costanzo.)
No wonder Tribes bowled over the British critics (including our own Lizzie Loveridge) when it premiered at the Royal Court. It's a terrific play, sad yet often funny and with broad-based appeal, by a young playwright, Nina Raine (she's 36) who has something to say — actually quite a few things — and knows how to enliven her story and her characters with pungent dialogue.

I'm delighted to report, that the New York premiere is wonderfully staged and acted. If Curtainup gave star ratings, this would merit a 4 our of 4.

This open-ended production returns David Cromer to the scene of his New York directing breakthrough. As he did with Our Town, he's reconfigured the Barrow Street Theater into a square surrounded by raked seats on all sides. He's also once again relied on actors without big box office appeal to bring out the nuances in Ms. Raine's characters with well-crafted performances.

Placing the community of Grovers Corners smack in the middle of the audience was a natural for Thornton Wilder's chronicle of life and death in a once typical American town. This set-up also works beautifully for getting us deeply involved with the family at the heart of Tribes a title with meaningful thematic sub-text beyond the customs and interactions of Ms. Raine's volatile tribe. It's a tribe comprised of middle class intellectuals who love each other but are too egotistical and competitive to effectively nurture each other. If this sounds like yet another dysfunctional family drama, it is — but not monstrously or incurably dysfunctional.

The stage for Tribes is more fully furnished (with fine detail work by Scott Pask) than the abstract Our Town , with much of the drama playing out in the home of the titular family. At the top of the family tree are the constantly battling parents — Christopher (Jeff Perry), the acid-tongued, opinionated patriarch who has traded academia for writing books and teaching himself Chinese and Beth (Mare Winningham), his blocked novelist wife who has allowed herself to be stuck with most of the household chores. Daniel (Will Brill) and Ruth (Gayle Rankin), the oldest of their three twenty-something offspring have not done well in either their love lives or careers (he as an academic, she as a wannabe opera singer). Consequently both have returned to the nest. Billy (Russell Harvard) the youngest is deaf but has been raised to lip read and function in the mainstream rather than within the more narrow tribal community of the deaf.

It is the way Billy was raised (a choice that has long divided parents of hearing impaired children) that drives the play through its various and continuously absorbing thematic and plot detours. Triggering Billy's journey from being the seemingly content quiet insider/outsider in his noisily combative family is his meeting with Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who has used sign language as her deaf parents' interpreter and for her job with a deaf organization.

But Raine has more on her mind than an all's well that ends well love story about two different from the norm young people. Billy's new appreciation of signing and being part of another tribe, the deaf community, poses a threat to his family that seems to need him "as is" — especially his mentally fragile brother Dan.

To intensify the complications and subtext, the deafness in Sylvia's family is generic. Thus, as Billy is with her help able to become independent and self-supporting as a lip reader for the law courts, Sylvia is facing her own loss of hearing, and so must adjust to being a member of the deaf community rather than an interpreter between them and the hearing world. In short, as Billy needs to ally himself with the deaf community rather than his family, so Sylvia feels a need to distance herself from the deaf world in order not to be totally defined by her deafness. ("I feel like I'm losing my personality. . .can't even be ironic anymore . . .I love being ironic. . .")

Raine wittily dramatizes the collision between Billy's family and the world with which he comes to ally himself with. The lively table talk during two dinner party scenes unfurls diverse shades of communication and non-communication, the neuroses within intelligent but egotistical nuclear families, as well as the rigid hierarchies prevailing among the deaf. As Sylvia defines that hiearachal structure: "I'm not deaf from birth so that makes me less good than someone who is. But I come from a very deaf family so that makes me more kosher. Billy.s at the top of the pile because he's deaf from birth — like a cradle Catholic is better than a convert — but when he didn't know any sign, that took him down a few notches again."

There's also the matter of the family' being Jewish. It's not really part of the conversation, though Raine seems to point to it as yet another form of tribal connection through her characters being the sort of animated opionators often associated with Jewishness.

Cromer has elicited deeply felt performances and fully dimensioned characters from the entire cast. Russell Harvard is particularly fine. He turns Billy's emergence from the always agreeable, greatly loved but too much taken for granted youngest to a young man suddenly allowing himself to act on a lifetime of feeling like an outsider into a believably touching and, yes, bumpy, journey. At first we just see his joy at being with Sylvia, as when he touchingly tells Dan "There was an empty place at the table and she came and sat down in it. I was alone. . .and now I'm not." After a while, he as convincingly shows the simple joy at no longer being the odd man out in his home boil over into anger at their never bothering to really understand what he's missing by their never bothering to learn to sign.

Mr. Cromer's staging, turns out to be something of a purposeful master stroke. As we come to understand the dynamics of this family's overall competitiveness and inability to communicate and why Billy's move to a front and center place in the family hierarchy is such a shock, so we, like his family, get a smattering of what it feels like to not be able to see or hear everything. In addition to the four-sided seating that at times makes us unable to see some characters' faces, Jeff Sugg's astutely projected captions for some of the signed dialogue are mere snippets that leave it to us to fill in details. The play's description of the painful effect of hearing loss on one's enjoyment of music is powerfully supported by the way sound designer Daniel Kluger lets the beautiful classical pieces heard throughout suddenly turn into roaring background noise.

If I have any disappointment with Tribes, it's that the mental problems of older brother Dan seem laid on rather too heavily and, given the edgy realism that precedes it, the finale is a bit too facile and hokey. But these are minor disappointments, not enough to keep Tribes from being one of the season's best new plays. Don't miss it!

Tribes by Nina Raine
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: Will Brill (Daniel), Russell Harvard (Billy), Jeff Perry (Christopher), Susan Pourfar (Sylvia), Gayle Rankin (Ruth), Mare Winningham (Beth)
Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Tristan Raines
ighting Design: Keith Parham
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Prop design & Coordinator: Kathy Fabian/Propstar
Hair & Make-Up: Leah J. Loukas
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Running Time: 2 Hours and 10 minutes, includes one intermission
Barrow Street Theatre 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue)
From 2/15/12; opening 3/04/12.
Selling tickets through1/06/13
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March1st press preview
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