Theater Reviews: The Politics of Identity Two Ways, in Taylor Mac’s Hir and George Takei’s Allegiance

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From Hir, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus

The home that Isaac returns to at the beginning of Taylor Mac’s smart but deliberately disorienting new play Hir is not the one he left when he enlisted as a Marine three years earlier. His abusive father, Arnold, has suffered a debilitating stroke. His tomboy sister, Maxine, has begun a do-it-yourself gender transition with hormones bought on the internet, and has now emerged as his “sissy” brother, Max. Far from resenting or mourning these disruptions, Isaac’s mother, Paige, is electrified by them. Max’s escape from biology has provided a model for her own escape from the rigid control of a violent husband and housewifely expectation; she no longer cooks, cleans, or bothers to maintain any order in their nightmarishly cluttered home. (“We don’t do cupboards anymore,” she says. “We don’t do order.”) Rather, she joyfully indulges her formerly suppressed interests and preferences, from art to air-conditioning. And Arnold’s stroke has provided her with an opportunity for revenge. Drugging him into docility, she dresses him in a lavender nightgown and a bedazzled kitten sweater, with finishing touches that include elaborate drag makeup and a rainbow clown wig. He sleeps in a box on the filthy kitchen floor: “He has not earned the right to be cared for.” 

If you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this spectacle, I suspect that’s how Mac likes it; in the script he describes Hir’s genre with the oxymoron “absurd realism.” For the realism part, there is, as the title indicates, a great deal of instruction on the new prerogatives of gender: Max prefers the pronouns “ze” instead of “he” or “she,” and “hir” (pronounced “here”) instead of “his” or “her.” Magnets on the fridge spell out the absurd acronymic pile-up LGBTTSQQIAA, pronounced “lug-a-BUTT-squee-ah.” But if the freedom of gender self-definition is celebrated as the “root” of all other freedoms, it is also satirized, Mac deftly catching the way liberation quickly becomes another form of control. “Ze wants you to say ‘ze’ or ‘hir’ as if this had been part of your regular speaking vocabulary your entire life,” Paige explains to the nonplussed Isaac. “Any breach in decorum will cause hir to write in hir blog about how awful hir troglodyte fascist heteronormative mother is. It’s fantastic.” 

Max is mostly a caricature of invented self-entitlement, which the play gets away with by defining hir as a bratty teen. (“I’m allowed to be selfish ’cause I’m in transition,” ze says.) But if satire were all Hir had up its sleeve, it would not merit a full-length treatment and would not grow so dark and difficult. I have to assume it was a deliberate choice, and not just an accident of plotting, that Paige, in the ecstasy of her release from domination (which, we are told, included sexual violence) is monstrously unkind. There is, of course, her treatment of Arnold, who perhaps can be said to deserve it — though because his cruelties are merely described while hers are demonstrated, the play does not successfully dramatize the point. But in any case, what has poor back-from-the-war Isaac done? Clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his years in a mortuary unit, he is greeted upon his return not only by radical change in each of his relatives but by the explicit message that he, like his father, is a “leftover piece” of the old order and thus “no longer necessary.” Is it any wonder that as he decompensates, desperately trying to reassert control while the new order pushes him out, some of our sympathy goes with him?

I have to assume that Mac is critiquing, not endorsing, this dark side of liberation politics, much as early Soviet playwrights sent up flares of warning about the dangers of a politics without pity. If so, he is uniquely well placed to do so. No one in the contemporary theater has better gender-queer bona fides, or a better sense of humor about it all. (His tongue-in-cheek bio reveals that Mac prefers the lower-case pronoun “judy,” as in “judy’s plays include The Lily’s Revenge and the forthcoming 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”) In his other work, Mac’s maximalism has almost always paid off, not only in terms of gorgeous maquillage and feats of endurance but in his ambition for theater as a communal tool. But here, the huge kaleidoscope of attempted analysis — gender, class, political, aesthetic — makes it difficult to track his intentions. The somewhat chaotic production by Niegel Smith also gets in the way. Kristine Nielsen, of course, is no stranger to maximalism; she is almost a shrine to it, with her full-frequency voice and spring-loaded eyes. If she cannot make Paige make sense, she does make her watchable. Daniel Oreskes, as Arnold, is also compelling, even when his dialogue consists of little but grunts. But Cameron Scoggins as Isaac and Tom Phelan as Max only rarely get out from under their dramaturgical burdens to connect organically with the material, let alone land a laugh. I’m not sure anyone could.

For that matter, I’m not sure that’s what Mac wants. Certainly, he’s far too genre-queer for traditional comedy, with its consistent characters and sculpted plots. Nor, with all its laughs, is this a tragedy, except in the longest view. Hir is evidently meant to be something new, something in between, which is as difficult a goal for a play as it is for Max as an identity. Perhaps we’ve come at least far enough as a society and as theatergoers to say that ze (and judy) may, even as they struggle and make mistakes, have something important to say.

* * *

It’s easier to be on the right side of history when the history has already happened. That the forced removal of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II was a very bad thing we need hardly be told, and yet, unfortunately, the earnest and turgid new musical Allegiance, based in part on the childhood experience of the Star Trek star George Takei, has little else to say. If you had never heard of the internments or had never thought much about the daily dilemmas faced by the internees, perhaps Allegiance would be a good introduction. It focuses on the experiences of the Kimura family of Salinas, California: a widowed farmer, Tatsuo; his beamish college-grad son, Sammy; his 30-ish daughter, Kei, who has all but raised Sammy since their mother’s death; and cute gramps Ojii-chan (played by Takei himself). Their warm, picturesque life on the farm quickly shifts to one of cold, illness, and deprivation in a camp at Heart Mountain, Montana. Whether to endure the situation with dignity — a traditional Japanese virtue embodied in the word gaman, about which there is a dignified song — or fight, in the American way, to change it, is the central conflict of the show.

Whenever the authors (the book is by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione) find ways to dramatize the stark humiliations suffered by people who were, after all, loyal citizens of the United States, Allegiance is momentarily effective. (Forcing the Japanese women to undress in public for medical examinations is one such moment.) But too much of the show is devoted to far-fetched plot twists whose attempts to gin up excitement only look silly in the shadow of the larger forces at work. (The parallel romances between Sammy and a white nurse on the one hand and Kei and a firebrand internee on the other come into conflict in ways that are both predictable and, eventually, ludicrous.) Furthermore, the bookend scenes involving an embittered Sammy 60 years later seem lazily tacked on to provide a second role for Takei (he overdoes it) and the show with the necessary Broadway uplift. But why should a story that features an atomic-bomb special effect have a happy ending? The obvious prototype for making this sort of material work should have been Fiddler on the Roof, with its traditional culture under threat from within (new ideas about love) and without (pogroms). Unfortunately, the actual models seem to have been Les Miz and Miss Saigon. (Lea Salonga, who plays Kei here, appeared in both.) Like those pop operas, Allegiance is so overmusicalized, with 22 songs, not counting reprises, that the book feels anemic. And though often pretty, with attractive dustings of Japanese pentatonics, too many of those songs (by Mr. Kuo) sound too much alike as they reach for grandeur but get stuck at glue.

The good intentions of all involved are not wasted; how many times have critics begged for new musicals that tell untold stories and bring new voices to the medium? Allegiance does that both on the small scale — one scene is based directly on a confrontation Takei had with his father — and large. Within its fictional framework it is, generally, factual, including the controversial role played by Japanese-American leaders whose attempts to leverage their support for the Roosevelt administration into better conditions at the camps led some to brand them as traitors to their people. The mostly Asian-American cast, which besides Takei and the poised Salonga includes Telly Leung in big voice as Sammy, is obviously deeply engaged in what is, in some cases, a personal story. (Like Takei himself, the director Stafford Arima’s parents were interned, but in Canadian camps.) But none of that is really relevant if the result is only good in the wrong sense of the word. 

Hir is at Playwrights Horizons through December 6. 

Allegiance is at the Longacre Theatre.