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Tribes off-Broadway

A striking new play from Nina Raine(that premiered in London to an Olivier Award nomination in 2010-the above trailer is from that production)stars deaf actor Russell Harvard as Billy. Many of you will remember Mr. Harvard from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film “There Will Be Blood” as the adult H.W. There he has a memorable confrontation with Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie’s audacious last section. If you weren’t certain in that work if Russell is really hearing-impaired, it’s confirmed for you here immediately. I was seated directly behind him during a key opening scene, and his dual hearing aids are prominent from that position. Also, I could’ve reached out and touched him because I was sitting right ON the stage. Unbeknownst to me when I purchased my 1st row ticket to the 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre in NYC’s West Village, that the entire first row of chairs that completely surround the stage area—are on the same level as the actors(the rows behind that are raked upward). I easily could’ve tapped Russell on the shoulder. Not that the closeness was a bad thing—it became that much more of a moving and intimate experience. In fact, actress Susannah Flood(who plays Billy’s going-deaf girlfriend, Sylvia)backed up so near to me at one point in the middle of the show, that I spied her peeking backwards to make sure she didn’t land on top of me. After enjoying such a strong performance from this lithe, beautiful actress for about an hour at that point, I can assure Susannah that I would have enthusiastically caught her in the most gentlemanly of ways! That first act is such a well-written corker that it’s a bit of a shame that a truncated, somewhat unfocused latter portion greets us after intermission. Still, it’s a bracing original that could maybe just use having a few of the kinks worked out of it towards the end. But that first stanza is bloody marvelous.                    The show opens with some intellectually heated discussions, from an obviously educated family, upon the play’s richly detailed dining area set. Patriarch Christopher(the ironically named Jeff Still, who gesticulates in perpetual motion)is whip smart and constantly spews scathing criticism. Mom, Beth(Lee Roy Rogers, who replaced original cast member Mare Winningham)is calmer and more measured. She also hilariously speaks of her writing of a “marriage-breakdown” detective novel. Their son Daniel(a terrific Will Brill)is a demon-tortured(seems like a type of schizophrenia)twenty-something who recently moved back into the family home and is writing a thesis about whether language determines meaning. And little sister Ruth(the mostly overshadowed Dina Thomas)is also returning to the nest, sporting a wayward career path(she’s currently employing herself singing opera at local pubs!). Then there’s Billy(a superb Mr. Harvard). He’s silently present for the play’s opening vociferous ramblings between his parents and siblings—most of the tug-of-war coming as his brother and sister bite back at their analytical and openly belittling father. We soon realize that Billy is deaf, and that although he doesn’t sign(his Dad considers it a conformity to the deaf world), he is an excellent lip reader. But then he meets Sylvia(Ms. Flood)at a club, and his whole world starts to change. Sylvia is suffering from adult-onset deafness, and is at a stage where her hearing is rapidly deteriorating. She tells Billy early on that he’s lucky to not know what he’s missing(Billy was born deaf), and openly chides him for never learning to sign. Billy’s burgeoning desire to learn it, leave home, and begin a new career, causes swift consternation from his exacting Pop. It seems that none of the various significant others of his now-adult children have ever been quite good enough for dear old dad. And Sylvia, with her sign language demands, is off to a shaky start.               Have I said how crazy I am for that first act? The second half hardly fizzles, but it still has a myriad of issues. For one thing, it’s too short—so it’s inferior to the opening in both focus and running time. I believe this show would’ve benefited from equal-length halves. It feels uneven. A subplot concerning Billy’s job deciphering tapes for the courts is distracting in its over complication. And Ms. Raine tends to drive some of her points of “failing to communicate” home with a sledgehammer when a more subtle approach would’ve trusted the audience more. But the direction of the talented David Cromer is expectedly sure-handed(Mr. Cromer oversaw the recent, renowned, long-running “Our Town” production at this very theater). And the show boasts wonderful lighting, sound and scenic design(from Keith Parham, Daniel Kluger and Scott Pasik, respectively—along with a strong group from other departments)in its small space. The words “spoken” when Sylvia and Billy are signing are light-projected in various places around the lived-in feeling set.  The “buzz” that represents Billy’s hearing at one juncture is jarring, yet perfectly selected. There have been a few replacements in the cast since the show opened months ago, but even the lesser performances are more than good enough. You have roughly 3 months left to attend this already extended show(it’s currently slated to close January 6th). Excellent discounts can be found on various on-line sites(my base ticket was under 40 bucks). And the glorious first act more than compensates for its decidedly lesser post-intermission scenes.      This show rates an 8          


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