Have you heard? Are you listening to me? What did you just say?
Most of us ask variations on those questions at least a dozen times a day. But it’s unlikely that they vibrate with the resonance they acquire in Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” a smart, lively and beautifully acted new play that asks us to hear how we hear, in silence as well as in speech.
This British-born comic drama, which opened on Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theater under the expert direction of David Cromer, considers the passive and aggressive forms of listening (or not listening) within an insular intellectual family. They’re a bunch of dueling narcissists, this lot, with words as their weapons of choice.
You’ve probably met their kind before in fiction (like J. D.Salinger’s tales of the Glass family) or film (like Wes Anderson’s “Royal Tenenbaums”). But a few significant traits set Ms. Raine’s characters apart from similar clans with high I.Q.’s and a self-regard to match. One of their members, you see, is deaf. Everyone else more or less pretends that he is not. And therein lie the seeds of a rebellion that could crack a house in two.
Most of “Tribes,” produced in 2010 at the Royal Court Theater in London, takes place in the main gathering room of that imperiled home. The long, cluttered table that fills center stage would appear to exist for purposes of eating. (Scott Pask did the perfectly detailed, personality-rich set.) But it’s really a platform for the competitive exchange of ideas and the sort of intimate insults that in some families passes for affection.
Mom and Dad are Christopher (Jeff Perry), an academic critic who is never less than critical, and Beth (Mare Winningham), who is writing what she describes as a “marriage-breakdown detective novel.” Living with them are their three children, all in their 20s and none with a clear notion of how to be a grown-up.
Daniel (Will Brill), the eldest, who is writing a thesis about how “language doesn’t determine meaning,” is clever, tortured and plagued by accusatory voices in his head. Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is vaguely pursuing a career singing opera arias in pubs and churches. Billy (Russell Harvard), well, you don’t really notice at him at first. He’s the youngest, and deaf. Though he can read lips very well (he’s never been taught to sign), he doesn’t take much part in the cacophonous conversation that begins the play.
The lives of Ruth and Daniel are littered with former lovers who didn’t pass family inspection. Now it’s Billy’s turn to bring a prospective mate to dinner. That’s Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who grew up with deaf parents and is now losing her hearing. For the moment she lives in a sort of auditory twilight.
The confrontations that arise from Billy’s meeting Sylvia touch on a dizzying assortment of daunting topics. These include the relative virtues and limitations of spoken and sign languages; the exclusionary cultures of the hearing and the nonhearing, and the hierarchies that exist within; and the sly emotional abuse that occurs in possessive families.
Yet for its first act “Tribes” — which was nominated for both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best play — keeps all these weighty thematic balls twirling in the air. It helps, of course, that the characters live to argue. Metabolically they’re kin to the madcap families of vintage comedies like Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever” and Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” and they emanate the same infectiously fizzy energy. Initially they do, anyway.
The first scene ends with a simple, highly effective coup de théâtre, in which all of the family members have left the table, still quarreling, except for Billy, who sits by himself. You realize, for the first time, how incredibly lonely he must be.
From that moment production details that you would take for granted in other plays assume elemental significance, like the classical music that is played between scenes. (The role of Daniel Kluger’s carefully thought-through sound design is crucial.) Hearing the opening strains of a Mozart aria, you feel a rush of sensual pleasure at first; then you realize that sensation is not, and cannot be, shared by everyone.
Simply turning on the radio, as Daniel does during an exchange of confidences with Billy, underlines the cracks in the brothers’ relationship. (Daniel does it to drown out his internal voices, but it makes Billy’s hearing aid buzz.) The big, brilliant dinner scene that ends the first act, in which Sylvia meets the folks, concludes with her playing the piano, while the others gather round to listen, each in his or her imperfect way.
As staged by Mr. Cromer, who directed the sublime revival of “Our Town” at the same theater, “Tribes” forces us to hear with our eyes as well. Supertitles are projected during signed sequences, but irregularly, so sometimes we lose the thread. The in-the-round configuration for this production means that at different points different actors will have their backs to us. And you’re increasingly aware of the importance of where everyone is standing, how bright or dark the stage is (according to Keith Parham’s lighting) and how loud or muffled offstage noises are.
Though this heightened sensibility is sustained throughout, the second act is a bit of a letdown. That’s when the Plot, with a capital P, takes over, and self-conscious Important Moments occur. People start explaining, with labored specificity, aspects of themselves that we have already inferred. It’s a bit as if Ms. Raine suddenly felt obliged to translate for the hard of understanding.
The performances never falter, though, nor does our sense of the intricately woven ties that bind these characters. I’ve rarely encountered a cast that finds as many far-reaching shades of meaning in tones of voice as this one does. Every member of the ensemble is spot-on. Even the assumed British accents feel organic.
As the participants in a triangle that is not exactly romantic, at least not in ways you might expect, Mr. Harvard, Mr. Brill and Ms. Pourfar are terrific in charting forms and degrees of a private communication. Ms. Pourfar conveys an astonishing progression, physical and emotional, as a woman moving gradually from one auditory plane to another.
As her voice changes from scene to scene, you’ll have at least a glimmer of experiencing how a woman who is losing her hearing hears herself. Listen closely, as this play asks, and you’ll find yourself suspended, like her, on a swaying bridge between two worlds.
By Nina Raine; directed by David Cromer; sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Tristan Raines; lighting by Keith Parham; projections by Jeff Sugg; sound by Daniel Kluger; hair and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas; production stage manager, Richard A. Hodge; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; general manager, Michael Page; production manager, Production Core. Presented by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, Patrick Daly, 2Manocherians, Christian Chadd Taylor, Burnt Umber Productions, Marc and Lisa Biales and Roger E. Kass. At the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street, at Seventh Avenue South, West Village, (212) 868-4444, smarttix.com. Through June 3. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Will Brill (Daniel), Russell Harvard (Billy), Jeff Perry (Christopher), Susan Pourfar (Sylvia), Gayle Rankin (Ruth) and Mare Winningham (Beth).