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Theatre in Review: Hir (Playwrights Horizons)

Tom Phelan, Cameron Scoggins, Kristine Nielen. Photo: Joan Marcus

Isaac Connor, the young protagonist of Hir, returns from a combat zone to find his family's home in a state of revolution. The tacky suburban California house where he grew up in is a state of epic disarray. "We were getting rid of things, and we stopped caring," says his mother, Paige, cheerily. When Isaac quite reasonably points out that the place is a fire hazard, Paige coos, "Oh wouldn't that be wonderful?"

There are far more disturbing developments in store for Isaac. He was told that his father, Arnold, had a minor stroke; instead, he discovers Arnold in a dysfunctional state, barely conscious of others and only occasionally speaking a few broken words. To Isaac's horror, Paige dresses Arnold in ladies' nightgowns, often with garish wigs and circus clown makeup. She feeds him a debilitating cocktail of drugs, laced with estrogen (to keep him compliant), leaves him at home for hours at a time, and makes him sleep in a cardboard box.

And, to top it all off, there's Max, formerly Isaac's younger sister, who, having announced that he is transgender, is now taking testosterone and has grown a beard. "I credit the Cheetos," says Paige, by way of explanation. "How could we feed our children fluorescent food and not expect a little gender confluence?" On the other hand, Paige has decided that (pardon the expression) mankind has descended from fish. "There has never been any such thing as men and women and, Isaac, there never will be." Isaac, his psyche permanently damaged by the job of retrieving body parts from the field of battle, has only one response to these developments: He runs to the sink and vomits, repeatedly.

A wild farce about deadly serious subjects, Hir is often uproariously funny, especially when Kristine Nielsen is holding forth as Paige -- and yet, just as often, it stops cold to take note of any number of ugly realities. For years, this family existed in a state of despair. Paige and Arnold married in good faith, but years of coping with the bad hand dealt to working class people took its toll. As Paige bitterly notes, they remain in "this goddamn starter home we've been in for thirty years;" Arnold, infuriated by his inability to get ahead, acted out, chasing women, drinking too much, lashing out at his customers (he was a plumber), and beating his wife and kids. Now, with him vegetating in the corner, Paige has restyled herself as a kind of Auntie Mame for the millennium, abjuring housework, taking impromptu trips to Paris, and overseeing Max's transition. She has also taken to home-schooling Max. When Isaac points out that she didn't even make it through junior college, Paige replies (not inaccurately), "People who believe Adam and Eve populated the planet are allowed to home school."

The rest of Hir follows the power struggle that ensues as Isaac tries to restore the house to its former state of order and Paige does everything she can to thwart him. Despite the author's optimistic program notes, in which he says how many "queer refugees," "straight radicals," and "progressives" are creating a "new world order" in their homes, Hir succeeds mostly as a burst of comic rage, a report from a war with no clear winner. Under Paige's willful eccentricity is a well of pain and unappeased fury; in her view, no accommodation can be made to the needs of others. If the others can't live in the state of chaos that she dictates, they know where the door is. Even Max, who stands the most to benefit from Paige's new worldview, chafes under her stream of dictates.

Clearly, the playwright, the drag performer Taylor Mac, has no interest in resolving the opposing forces that Hir sets in motion, but the writing has such verve and acid wit that it carries us along on contrasting tides of hilarity and anger right to the powerful, if open-ended, finale.

This is apparently Mac's first attempt at a somewhat naturalistic play, and at times the seams show. Isaac is exposed early on as a meth addict, but he never shows any evidence of it after that. Isaac is fuzzily conceived at best -- he mostly seems to exist to react to everything going on around him -- and the conflict the playwright draws, between a vicious, violent male heterosexuality and a polymorphous everything else, is so lacking in nuance that it occasionally becomes grating.

Then again, Niegel Smith's smartly paced production goes a long way toward holding the play's contradictions together, highlighting Mac's gift for savagely funny dialogue and showstopping set pieces. The role of Paige fits Nielsen so perfectly that it's fair to wonder if the play would work without her. The actress is a genius at teasing out the absurdity of a line. ("You're emasculating him," Isaac says, referring to Arnold. "Is it that obvious?" asks Paige.) In the hands of another actress, Paige might seem viciously controlling, even sadistic. (In one scene, having noticed that the sound of the blender makes Isaac vomit, she keeps turning it on, nursing a small smile as he ends up with his head in the sink.) Whether leaping around in joy and shouting "Paradigm shift!," giving Isaac an extended lecture on the new world of indefinite pronouns (the play's title being one of them), or hosting a "therapeutic shadow puppet show," Nielsen once again proves that her distinctive comic mannerisms can seemingly be put to endless uses.

With his lean frame, military haircut, and look of permanent shock, Cameron Scoggins perfectly captures Isaac's rattled, one-step-from-a-meltdown manner. The transgender actor Tom Phelan is appealing as Max, who dreams of living on a Radical Faerie commune, and who becomes a kind of prize in the war between Paige and Isaac. Daniel Oreskes gives one of his bravest performances as Arnold, especially when wandering around clad only in shoes, socks, kneepads, and diaper.

David Zinn's set, depicting the kitchen and living room, is a masterpiece of messiness, and even when cleaned up in Act II, retains its memorably tacky qualities, combining cheap appointments and cheaper furniture with all sorts of spangled, tinseled decorations. Gabriel Berry's costumes suit each character well, especially Paige's pants-and-top combinations and the garish outfits she puts on Arnold; there are also some attention-getting wigs deployed during the shadow puppet sequence. Mike Inwood's lighting and Fitz Patton's sound are thoroughly solid.

Hir is hardly a perfectly constructed play -- the ending, while gripping, leaves unclear how any of the characters can go forward -- but it represents a noted talent striking out in a new direction to considerable effect. And, given the news this week about the defeat of an LGBT rights law in Houston, thanks to worries about transgender men and women in public restrooms, maybe Mac's comic fury is more apposite than it at first seems. -- David Barbour

(9 November 2015)

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