Tribes (at the Barrow Street Theatre through June 3)
Tribes is composed and expressed in so many different inter-meshing vernaculars — educated estuary English, British intellectualese, sign language, Middle Dilettante — NASA should consider including it aboard its next deep-space probe. Alien races could learn a lot about how humans draw each other suffocatingly close while desperately fending each other off, and how we agglomerate into a incestuous groups, break apart, hybridize, and come back together, changed. They could also pick up some mustardy Britspeak, which is slung around with thrilling aplomb by the electrically talented young playwright Nina Raine (already an Olivier-nominated sensation in London). “There is nothing naffer than titivating a cliché!” is a typical explosion from Christopher (the hellacious Steppenwolf vet Jeff Perry), the mostly harmless gasbag patriarch of a fractious family of Jewish intellectuals: foul-mouthed, fulmination-prone, life-stymied, and love-hungry. (In this particular case, dear old dad is attacking a manuscript written by his would-be novelist wife Beth, played with a hunkered and hard-learned equanimity by the great Mare Winningham.) “Why am I surrounded by my children again?” asks Christopher, rhetorically, in between jeremiads against his fellow literary critics and merrily vicious attacks on his family. “When are you all going to fuck off?” In this economy, possibly never: Troubled eternal-student Daniel (a twitchy Will Brill), who nurses a never-ending thesis on the limitations of language — and also an incipient mental illness that, perhaps a bit too neatly, tests that thesis — has moved home. Soprano-manque Ruth (Gayle Rankin, very funny) has, too. And then there’s Billy (Russell Harvard, a heartbreaker), who’s deaf, and thus spared (and also excluded from) his family’s constant, hyperverbal enfilade and defilade. He faithfully reads all those ever-twitching lips and endures his family’s affectionate condescension. Until he meets and falls for Sylvia (Susan Pourfar, deftly delivering and relentlessly underplaying Tribes’ toughest role), a hearing woman who’s gradually going deaf.
Billy’s been raised in a hearing household, kept scrupulously out of the “deaf ghetto” by a family unwilling to share him with any rival group. He can’t sign. When Sylvia teaches him how — her parents are both deaf — Billy embarks on a long overdue journey of self-determination that quickly presents him with a choice between the deaf community and his family, which, when threatened with competition, darkens like a jealous God. David Cromer (Our Town, Brighton Beach Memoirs) is back in fine form, conducting his excellent ensemble through Raine’s spiky dialogue with wit and warmth. After a slightly dizzying adjustment period — it took my Yankee ears ten minutes to warm up and wise up to Raine’s twelve-tone English — the play ripens into an engrossing, straightforward family drama, which works casual formal experimentation and apple-polishing cleverness into the warp and weft of a lovely, simple story. Cromer uses silence and din the same way he uses light and shadow: He creates islands of intimacy and meaning amid an aural anarchy both profane and sublime. This is, without a doubt, the sweetest, smartest play I’ve ever seen in which someone compares a plate of seafood pasta to “being fucked in the face by a crab.”
An Iliad (at New York Theater Workshop through March 25)
A nameless Poet — call him Homer, if you want to be all narrow and literal about it — walks into a theater. Slings a little Greek at us. Switches to a relaxed American-English idiom. Tells the story of an old, old war that never really stopped. That’s all there is to An Iliad, the one-actor-one-bassist monologue by the one-of-a-kind writer-performer Denis O’Hare (Take Me Out, True Blood). O’Hare plays the Poet half the time; Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) handles the other nights. The text is the same for both actors: The speaker is old, and forgetful, and very regretful, and yet giddy to be spinning his bloody yarn of the Trojan War yet again, albeit in drastically abridged form. (The show’s only 100 minutes.) But the texture of An Iliad is entirely contingent on its tellers. You couldn’t ask for two more different performers than O’Hare and Spinella, the former boiling with tics and sly, downcast self-regard, the latter begging for our approval, practically panhandling. Both are dressed like hobos, but O’Hare’s looks like the shiv-sharpening kind, whereas Spinella’s wants your nickel for a song. Never for a moment are you unaware of being in the presence of great, perhaps even mythic theater-acting.
Which goes some distance toward obscuring the weaknesses of the show. The script itself is straightforward, a wire frame of the familiar story: raging war machine Achilles, hubristic family man Hector, all those innocents, soldier and civilian alike, ground to hamburger by the Mother of All Dumb Wars. O’Hare has added some pointed modern flourishes that feel a little creaky, Bush-era, and on the nose by the standards of today’s postwar war, this long, trailing conflict with its creepy invisibility and fibromyalgic persistence. An Iliad describes the war that was, not the war that is. But, of course, they’re all the same war, and we’re here for the teller, not the tale.
The Lady From Dubuque (at the Signature Center through April 15)
No one would mistake The Lady From Dubuque for Edward Albee’s greatest play. Its themes and techniques are familiar: middle-class parlor games that stave off inevitable showdowns with harsh reality, Pirandellian fractures of the fourth wall, the dull force of American denial met and overmatched with vengeful energy and godlike visitations. And, of course, that witty Waspy wordplay, punishing the ignorant and learned alike. (“Marx and who?” asks one flummoxed character. “Engels! Marx and Engels!” answers another, exasperated, while a third adds acidly, “The Kaufman and Hart of their day.”) But Lady’s meditations come maddeningly close to repetitions and persevere-ations, especially in its shapeless second act. Deep down, the show is a one-act ... which just so happens to possess a truly breathtaking act-break, and thus requires a full second act, too much of which is spent squandering the nightmare magic of the first. (I won’t give the intermission moment away, but without it — and the effect it produces on the audience — the play would have to be hacked nearly in half. Which, paradoxically, it probably should be anyway.)
That said, Lady is also not the unmitigated disaster it was made out to be when it opened at the dawn of the Reagan era. It’s a functional if slightly denatured core sample of Albee’s sixties obsessions, trans-grafted perhaps a bit too breezily onto Me Generation yuppiedom. And it contains some truly gorgeous language and more than a few moments of red meat for the eager actor. The shocks and reversals are noticeably more calculated, more deliberate and writerly than in Albee’s masterworks, but Lady is eminently “playable” and retains some sizzle, as tautly staged by David Esbjornson. (He recaptures some of the arid energy and crackling tension he brought to Albee’s late-period triumph The Goat.) Sam (Henry IV’s Michael Hayden, really earning a tough, sometimes elusive part) has done fairly well for himself, and he has the nice house and envious, insincere friends to show for it. He’s invited a few of them over for some drinks and charades: lunkish Fred (C.J. Wilson), his latest ditzy squeeze Carol (Tricia Paoluccio), grudge-nurturing beta-male Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan, theater’s leading purveyor of worms), and his gratingly ingratiating wife Lucinda (Catherine Curtin). But the focus of the night’s festivities is Sam’s wife, Jo (Frozen’s Laila Robins), who is dying. We in the audience know because she tells us, in an aside that isn’t an aside: All characters speak to the audience, and the others hear them when they do. This is one of the many meta-theatrical techniques Lady picks up and discards, as it restlessly searches for new ways to punish the comfortable, the complacent and the socially supreme with news of their impending and implacable mortality. This sounds insufferable, but what’s surprising is that a great deal of it still works. Jo is in pain and through with niceties — but not quite free, not yet. Eventually, two more quests arrive, uninvited and, yes, spectral: Elizabeth (the great Jane Alexander), a mysterious “lady from Dubuque” who claims to be Jo’s mother, and Oscar (Peter Francis James), her companion, whose blackness quickly becomes a subject of fear and obsession amongst the lily-white denizens of Denialville. (Albee’s deployment of race feels very, well, early-Reagan-era — clumsy, retributive, reductive. But James, with his Stygian bass and lilting delivery, has a great time exulting in the age-old scare-the-white-folks role.) Like I said, Lady is the Albee basics, and no more. But even the basics are pretty goldurned great: “He wasn’t happy with the way things are,” says Elizabeth of Sam. “He wanted everything back the way it never was.” Don’t we all? Yet we work with what we have. In the case of The Lady from Dubuque, that’s enough.
Hot Lunch Apostles (at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater through March 18)
In the early eighties, experimental playwright Sidney Goldfarb and the theater troupe the Talking Band presented Hot Lunch Apostles, a profane medicine show about itinerant strippers screwing their way across an economically devastated future America — and finding that religion sells even better than sex. (Goldfarb placed it in 1993, ten years on.) Nearly 30 years after it arrived, the show is back, with many of its original cast members (Jack Wetherall, Tina Shepard, Ellen Maddow) reprising their roles. Naked again after all these years: I wasn’t around for the original Lunch, but I’d wager that this frowsy, feisty, often funny if thematically fuzzy little skin pageant works even better with actors in their fifties and sixties: The sight of aging bodies disrobed and in motion — many of them in excellent shape, all things considered — registers as a bracing special effect in today’s smoothly depilated media landscape. The play may feel a little fossilized, and its impudence smells muskily of another downtown, another downturn, another reactionary era, but it’s a nice tonic for this strangely airbrushed recession we’re experiencing. And who’s that new kid in the ensemble? Why, it’s none other than Grammy winner Loudon Wainwright III, actor-singer-team player. He plays the boorish, hapless pimp who captains this traveling nudie-wagon and at one point delivers a gutbuster of a monologue from the cross, excoriating his crucifiers. (The diatribe rivals Mel Gibson in politically incorrect rage-a-holism.) But the show belongs to Wetherall’s Rod, the washed-up male stripper and sometimes-prostitute, who’s reluctantly enlisted to play Christ in the skin troupe’s passion play. Every line on his face has a story, as does every half-toned muscle in his still-maintained torso. Beneath the show’s rather shopworn provocations and postapocalyptic critique of a cold, commodified society, Wetherall finds something in Goldfarb’s punchy verse that the faithful might refer to as “a personal relationship with Christ.” And of course, this being America, even that costs Rod something. It’s worth paying to find out what.