Monday, September 30, 2013

Signs of the times

Erica Spyres introduces James Caverly to sign.

There's nothing quite as touching as the poignant theatre of identity politics.  I mean that.  I, too, am touched by the victims who parade across the contemporary stage.  I've shed a tear for the gay people whose parents can't understand them, and the people of color who suffer from our seemingly intransigent racism - and so I'm happy to add the hearing impaired to that list.  I feel for everybody.

And accordingly, I admit a lump sometimes came to my throat during the new weepie from SpeakEasy Stage, Nina Raine's Tribes, which ponders a family so egotistical and self-involved that they refuse to learn sign language to communicate with their deaf son.  (Yes, you read that right.)  But at the same time, even as I was tearing up, a cynical little voice in the back of my head was telling me that I was watching cartoon villains (and a pretty blonde heroine) in what amounted to an over-complicated tearjerker.  In short, the voice whispered, I was being taken for a sap.

And I'm afraid I left convinced that cold little voice was basically right. Not that there's anything wrong with being a sap - and certainly a lot of people have loved this articulately manipulative, if slightly discombobulated, little play.  They talk about how it "speaks volumes" and "opens up new worlds" to them - but all I can say in reply is, "Where the hell have you people been?"

True, perhaps the theatre public has lagged behind the times; but surely by now the superiority of sign language over lip-reading - the crux of Raine's drama - has long been settled.  As in long, loooong settled.  Sign is better.  (I suppose there are still some arguments over cochlear implants, but Raine doesn't have the guts to go near these.) In fact sign may be better, period - deaf infants pick it up much more quickly than hearing infants do spoken language, and soon converse at a sophisticated level.  There have even been examples of isolated communities - such as the famous case of Martha's Vineyard in the nineteenth century - in which due to the population's genetic profile, deafness became so common that the hearing residents learned to switch back and forth between sign and spoken word constantly. (Indeed, legend has it that hearing Vineyarders often spoke to each other in sign, and sometimes had to be reminded who was deaf and who wasn't.)

Needless to say, that kind of common sense doesn't reign in Raine's bohemian house of horrors.  The family of her deaf hero, Billy (James Caverly) has refused to learn to sign "on principle," to save him from some sort of "deaf ghetto" - only of course he is consigned instead to a lonely ghetto of their own making, desperately trying to lip-read, and in denial of the fact that the real principle driving his family's behavior is selfishness. To be fair, that self-absorption (they're all critics and writers and wannabe singers) is at times fun - in a way, they're toxic Oxbridge cousins of those eccentric American clans from the likes of You Can't Take It With You.  Raine knows these people (she's one of them) and more importantly, knows how they talk (although quote Boswell and Swift with "twat" thrown in and you're halfway there), and so she often sends up their academic twaddle quite brilliantly. But at the same time, the obviousness of these people's narcissism leaves her no real room to dramatically maneuver.

Not that she needs much, for this young playwright has basically written a thematic grid rather than a play.  To be fair, she has filled it in quite thoroughly - Raine not only has a deaf hero, but surrounds him with a brother who's hearing voices (get it?), a family that can't stop talking (get it?), a girlfriend who is losing her own hearing (get it?), and even a sister who wants to sing (!!). Again, not that there's anything wrong with that (you can chart a Shakespeare play in something like the same way). But if you look past her Oxford-Union debate skills, you realize Raine is making little human or dramatic sense.  We do wonder why no one in poor Billy's family will attend a class in sign - even when he threatens to leave for good after his eyes are opened to the pleasures of signing with his girlfriend Sylvia (the ever-luminous Erica Spyres).

And once Billy makes that overdue exit, Raine just begins thrashing around.  She gives Sylvia her own eloquent voice, but not much internal consistency, and she never bothers to explain the seeming schizophrenia of Billy's brother (Nael Nacer, emoting skillfully) - or the apparently intense relationship between the two siblings (they relate more as needy symbols than people). And by the time Billy inexplicably commits a crime in the last act, we realize Raine has only just begun to learn her craft.

Still, the young playwright has her moments. She's smart enough to poke a little fun at the vanity of some partisans of Deaf culture, and manages a few truly piercing moments (as when Sylvia sits down to play a piano she will soon be unable to hear). And Raine does present a compelling defense of sign against the communicative prowess of the spoken word in her big show-down (although it's worth noting that her bohemians often confuse the achievements of the written word with the spoken one - they go on and on, for instance, about levels of ambiguity that people almost never achieve in actual speech).  

So the play and the plight of its hero are, indeed, touching - and basically offer a field day to sound designer Arshan Gailus, who conjures various levels of deafness with skill, and projection designer Garrett Herzig, who complements Gailus's effects with intriguing imagery. Alas, set designer Cristina Todesco doesn't give this clan's in-the-round abode much individuality, but it is intriguingly turned inward, away from the audience, so, like Billy, we struggle to hear and understand all the chatter. As a staged concept, the production undeniably succeeds.

And the cast is clearly accomplished enough to disguise the fact that it doesn't work as drama - but then most of them are among the best actors in town, even if director M. Bevin O'Gara doesn't draw the performances from them that I think they're capable of. Newcomer James Caverley, who has worked previously with the National Theatre of the Deaf, is compelling early on, and blooms beautifully with Spyres, but builds little sense of unspoken feeling in his parallel scenes with Nacer, who, as I mentioned, emotes magnificently but also looks a bit lost. Likewise Adrianne Krstansky's scattered matriarch never seems to have figured out why she has stuck by Billy's obnoxious father, played by the skillful Patrick Shea, who improbably hangs on to some shreds of audience sympathy against all odds (the childishness of his eternal pique somehow saves him from our contempt). And I was glad to see Kathryn Myles again, after raving over a performance of hers on the fringe a season or two ago; hopefully she has now found a foothold in the larger scene. As I've said before, Boston boasts more good actors than there are good plays to put them in; but I haven't given up entirely on Raine - if she can forsake the Oxford Union for the stage, that is.

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