Monday, September 3, 2012


Tribes, at the Barrow Street Theatre off-Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I love just about everything about Nina Raine's play Tribes, even the title.

It made me think how we all belong to many different tribes. Some we're born into, like our family, and others we choose, like our profession. Tribes tells the story of a young deaf man who, for the first time, becomes immersed in the deaf community and the friction that causes with his hearing family.

Billy, played by Russell Harvard, is part of an extremely loquacious British family. His father, Christopher (Jeff Still), is an academic. His mother, Beth, (Mare Winningham), is writing a novel. He has a brother Daniel (Will Brill), an aspiring academic, and a sister Ruth (Meghan O'Neill), an aspiring opera singer.

Billy's parents never wanted him to learn sign language, fearing that it would limit him in a hearing world. He's a smart guy but his parents, although well-intentioned, haven't exactly brought him up with the expectation that he'll become anything, unlike his brother and sister.

While he reads lips extremely well, Billy often feels left out of the conversation at home. There's a lot of overlapping dialogue and arguing in the play. You can  understand why it's not always easy for him to follow what's being said.

Then he meets a young woman, Sylvia, played by Susan Pourfar, who is slowly losing her own hearing. Sylvia, whose parents are deaf, is fluent in sign language. She encourages Billy to learn it and introduces him to a world to which he never felt connected before.

All of that sounds like it could be a bit mawkish but it's not. Raine has created two characters in Billy and Sylvia who are not stereotypes but imperfect and very human. And as always director David Cromer gets terrific performances from his actors, reaching the core of the person they're playing.

Harvard is very likeable as Billy but he's not saintly and doesn't always do the right thing. Pourfar is heart-wrenching as Sylvia. She's not at all stoic about her impending deafness. She views it differently from Billy, who's never known anything else.

Still is great as a snobbish intellectual. He grills Sylvia to the point of rudeness when Billy brings her home for dinner. While Pourfar is up to the verbal sparring match, it did seem over the top and made me uncomfortable. (Apparently all the education in the world doesn't teach good manners!)

What Raine demonstrates so clearly is how these people who know so much about the world, who are curious about everything, seem disinterested when it comes to their son and brother. They talk all the time and yet they don't communicate very well. They don't listen.

It's not that they're monsters, they're just exceedingly self-absorbed. Granted, it's difficult for Billy's parents and siblings, as it is for the audience, to understand what the world sounds like to a hearing-impaired person. But Cromer is imaginative in helping us try.

The play takes place mostly in the family's dining/living room with the audience seated on all four sides, so at times an actor will be speaking with his or her back turned. Super-titles translate when Billy and Sylvia use sign language. And at one point, there's a buzzing noise that makes it possible to hear sounds but not really make out what's being said.

After a poignant first-act ending, Tribes loses its way a bit in Act II. Raine has Brill's Daniel fall apart in a way that seemed kind of abrupt and forced.

But overall, this is a beautifully written, thought-provoking work with memorable characters. It's about language and communication, it's about what happens when you have a cultural identity that you don't share with your family. It's a play you want to talk about afterward. 

I won't give anything away but one of the things that impressed me most about Tribes was the ending. It was perfect in a way that endings rarely are and a sure sign of a skilled, confident writer who knows where she's taking her audience.