Nina Raine's lovely play Tribes, now at the Mark Taper Forum, is likely to be done all over the place, having just the right blend of familiarity and exoticism to freshen the palate of theatergoers who enjoy both a smart, sensitive argument and a free-for-all. Its familiarity comes from the literate British family at the play's core. They squabble eloquently and messily and noisily, as families do. They talk and shout over each other in a language in which ridicule and mockery pass for insight. They jocularly tear at the very fabric of one another's ambitions until you wonder how any of them has had the confidence to accomplish anything. Until you realize that most of them haven't actually accomplished much, and that their enthusiasm for ripping each other to shreds may play a significant part in their muted accomplishments.
One of them, however — one of the family's three siblings, a young man named Billy (Russell Harvard) — is quiet. He's quiet because he's deaf, and has been since birth, though with a hearing aid he has learned to speak. His story, and his romance with a woman in the throes of losing her own hearing, is the exoticism-sensitivity part, taking what might have been a version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with grown kids, and expanding it into a meditation on the qualities of hearing, of listening, and the very purpose of words with questions of whether they offer meaning or bludgeon it.
The play has the rare capacity to grapple intelligently with linguistics as a theme while remaining tethered emotionally to a screwball family of writers and academics. The play is like a kite that impresses through the grandeur of its altitude, while the playwright smartly keeps roping it in, so that it has the rare quality of being both lofty and earth-bound.
Then there's the issue of it being done everywhere, which could be an impediment to preserving the integrity of the original production. It was commissioned by London's Royal Court Theatre, where it premiered in 2010. It enjoyed a much-extended North American premiere at New York's Barrow Street Theatre last year, directed by David Cromer. Even before the BST production, with most of its cast intact, was rolled out at the Taper last week, a different production opened in February at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Australia. Cromer will direct another version at La Jolla Playhouse this summer.
In early 2012, another highly praised production directed by Cromer — Thornton Wilder's Our Town — came to Southern California from the Barrow Street Theatre.
The driving purpose and force of that production was its intimacy; to secure that, Cromer's creative team all but redesigned the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Actors bolted through the audience, which was perched on bleachers. When the denizens of Grover's Corners raced through the streets, you could feel the breeze on your skin.
Such a redesign simply isn't possible at the Taper, resulting in a production that feels more generic than this play deserves.
But that's just the nature of theater, which doesn't transfer across venues and devices nearly as easily as celluloid or digital images do. The quality of a live performance cannot be separated from the air and the walls of the theater that contains it, or doesn't.
Tribes is an intimate and gritty play, perhaps too intimate and gritty for the Mark Taper Forum — not exactly a large theater but cavernous compared with the Royal Court and Barrow Street theaters.
This disconnect is best illustrated in Scott Pask's strategically messy set, cluttered with domestic detritus, which the family treats as cavalierly as the words it speaks — leaving the junk like they leave their throwaway phrases, for somebody else to pick up or brush away. At the opulent Taper, you get the sense that this family's garbage has been airlifted from a storage shed into a church.
Furthermore, despite the Taper's excellent sightlines, the place holds some 800 people with considerable comfort, including legroom. The place is bigger than those 800 seats might suggest. The sheer expanse of its thrust stage demands a larger-than-life performance style. Tribes, however, is very much life-size, and when the actors such as the fine Jeff Still, playing the family patriarch, try to stretch its skin with bluster and fervor, they expand a sensitive drama into a melodrama.
I received phone calls the day after the performance I viewed from friends complaining that, with actors clustered life-like around the dining room table, 30 to 40 percent of their repartee couldn't be heard, or at least understood. Perhaps this was part of some high-art concept about our inability to hear, though I suspect it was just an unwitting irony.
The play's virtues that transfer well include conveying the idea that people in general don't listen much, and a viscerally received anguish of what it must be like when hearing slips away. This is largely accomplished through Daniel Kluger's brilliant sound design, accompanying portions of dialogue with the subliminal rumble that invades the head during the process of hearing loss that Billy's girlfriend, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar, particularly adept expressing subtext), must endure.
Sylvia is Billy's Virgil, guiding him into the expansiveness of sign language, as well as the comfort and politics of the deaf community so spurned by his strident father, Christopher (Still), because the brazenly un-PC Christopher didn't want his son reared as an invalid. "We don't want to hear what sign [language] can do," he chastises Sylvia, after hearing about the remarkable though "concrete" expressiveness of sign language. "We want to hear what it can't." This is why Billy never learned to sign (which Sylvia teaches him) but has become expert at lip-reading — the key to his employment as a lip reader of security cameras to help solve crimes.
Playwright Raine is as candidly un-PC as Christopher. When the latter seethes at the idea of his son "belonging" to what he perceives as a sect, whose disadvantage it transposes into a virtue, he comes off as a pedant, albeit with a blustering, goading sense of humor. But with Sylvia, suffering every day from her diminishing capacity to hear, her complaints about the deaf community's "hierarchy" and insularity derive from an even more personal agony than Christopher's concern for his son — losing not only words heard but the classical music she cherishes (and plays on the family piano, in one scene). Perhaps Sylvia's gravest loss in the transition from spoken word to sign language is the loss of irony, a quality that lies at the center of who she imagines herself to be.
As Billy transitions away from his biological family to his adoptive one — causing the greatest anguish to his oft-posturing brother, Dan (Will Brill), who resumes stuttering as a consequence — Sylvia slips into an ever-more-intense isolation, intensely feeling a chokehold as though she's losing air to breathe. This is what Pourfar captures so subtly and adeptly.
Gayle Rankin has a similar spark as sibling Ruth, an aspiring singer who finally confronts her own lack of talent after being reminded of it so relentlessly by Dan. And Lee Roy Rogers turns in a spirited turn as their mother, Beth.
But the play's core profundity could be mistaken for a platitude — which it isn't. That wisdom is an echo from Fellini's final film, The Voice of the Moon, in which a group of characters gathers around a wishing well squabbling about what secrets it contains. One of them, peering into the hidden waters below, says that if we all stop talking for just a minute, we might actually understand something.
TRIBES | By Nina Raine | A Barrow Street Theatre production presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sat., March 16, 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., March 17, 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through April 14 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org