In the intellectually raucous British household of Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” family members don’t so much talk as assault each other with monologues.
The dinner table cacophony consists of scraps of debate, ironic jabs, aesthetic proclamations, academic gobbledygook, politically incorrect polemics and insults both sophisticated and juvenile.
With everyone boisterously holding forth as though the fate of the Western world rested upon their tongue, it’s no surprise that listening is a negligible activity — an elective course no one has bothered to sign up for.
Raine, a rising English playwright who trained as a director, turns up the volume on the chatter so that we can more fully appreciate the sound of silence.
This smart and sensitive (if slightly over-padded) play, which centers on a young deaf man in the throes of love struggling to claim an independent identity within his quarreling clan, divides the world into two categories — those who cannot hear because of physical impairment and those who cannot hear because they can’t shut up long enough to take in someone else’s reality.
Critically esteemed off-Broadway, “Tribes” arrives at the Mark Taper Forum with its New York production, directed by David Cromer, largely intact. It takes a little time to adjust to the clamor, especially when Christopher (Jeff Still), the family patriarch and public intellectual who writes “argumentative” books, is haranguing his nearest and dearest at full blast.
The opening scene, in which dinner discussion proceeds like a contact sport, is the opposite of ingratiating. I found myself wincing at the hubbub, wishing there were a mute button I could press. The commotion may be unduly exaggerated by Cromer and his cast, but the point is as much thematic as theatrical in a play that is a study in contrasts of communication styles.
Raine ranges over a vast territory here. She’s interested in deafness as both a disability and an alternative way of experiencing the world. But she’s also preoccupied with the limitations of language, exposing the gaps in what even the most highly accomplished speakers are able to impart.
The play is focused more on the psychological than the philosophical aspect of this, but the linguistic line is pursued to its outer limits, where questions of truth and sanity are briefly engaged.
If “Tribes” seems a tad overwritten, it’s no doubt because Raine has compiled a doctoral dissertation’s worth of ideas on her subject. But at the center of the work is an emotionally stirring hush, an eloquent stillness that is an oasis from the punishing din.
This is the space occupied by Billy (Russell Harvard, in a wonderfully anchoring performance), the youngest of the siblings, who has been deaf since birth and who has long given up trying to keep pace with the bantering gymnastics.
A stranger to sign language when the play begins, Billy undergoes a change of consciousness after meeting Sylvia (a superb Susan Pourfar), who is losing her hearing because of an inherited condition.
Raised by deaf parents, Sylvia is in many ways more at home in the deaf community than Billy, though she’s terrified of the silence that’s rapidly engulfing her. Their quickly developing romance sets in motion changes that prompt Billy to challenge his family’s status quo.
Although treated straightaway like a member of this confrontational family, Sylvia is perceived as a threat by Billy’s father, who is proud that Billy has been raised almost exclusively within the hearing world, and Billy’s brother, Daniel (Will Brill), whose psychiatric problems are ignited by his fear that Billy will abandon him.
Beth (Lee Roy Rogers), Billy’s mother, a late-blooming writer with a bohemian flair, tries to defuse the tension of this overcrowded household, as does Ruth (Gayle Rankin), Billy’s sister, a performer whose venture into opera provokes a tangential disquisition on the nonverbal possibilities of artistic expression.
But the hostilities are brought to a head when Billy announces through Sylvia that he won’t have anything more to do with his family until they can speak to him in sign language, which he has finally acquired. He’s tired of accommodating himself to them and wants to be treated as an adult son, not the family mascot.
The production, revolving mostly around the dinner table of this Guardian-reading, book-crammed household (compactly arranged by scenic designer Scott Pask), employs supertitles and projections (the work of Jeff Sugg) to create a sense of what it’s like to live in the interstices of conversation. Daniel Kluger’s sound design contributes to this effect, which is a welcome departure from the play’s otherwise traditional brand of domestic realism.
This family is clearly an extreme case, but I wondered whether “Tribes” would have been more persuasive if Cromer had toned down the rackety belligerence. Does Still’s Christopher have to be so insufferable? His type exists no doubt in academic and journalistic circles (please don’t ask me to name names), but couldn’t he have been dappled with a little charisma?
The connection Raine insinuates between Daniel’s faltering mental health and the family’s dysfunctional mode of communication seems overly literary. Poor Brill is subjected to thematic overload, having to play a character who not only develops a colossal stammer but also starts hearing voices. The strain leaves him hunched and haggard.
The second act gets tangled in plot strands that could easily be trimmed. What rescues “Tribes” is the honest poignancy of Pourfar, who beautifully balances Sylvia’s strength and insecurity, and the captivating interior glow of Harvard, who conveys everything he needs to about Billy through his physical bearing.
With actors this emotionally connected, words are secondary. More to the point of Raine’s play, hearing is shown to depend more on an open heart than fully functioning ears.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Please call for exceptions.) Ends April 14.
Price: $20-$70 (Ticket prices subject to change.)
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission