By Tulis McCall
In Taylor Mac’s new play HIR at Playwrights Horizons, it is all about the conjugation. It is the connection between people. It is the connection between words that exist and new words that are needed to fill in heretofore overlooked blanks. As “SHE” is to “HER” and “HE” is to “HIM” we now have the relationship between “Ze (Zay)” and “HIR”. In case you get lost, these breakdown is magnetized onto the refrigerator. You can refer to these words all night long. You can refer to them until the cows come home. I did, and found them grammatically helpful but no remedy for what ailed me.
The Connor family is at a crossroads. Everything is falling apart. Arnold (Daniel Oreskes) is an abusive patriarch who has had a stroke and is now at the mercy of his former victims: his wife Paige (Kristine Nielsen) and his daughter who is transitioning into a son, Max (Tom Phelan). Mercy may be stretching it a bit. There is no mercy for miles around, and Arnold is now the fly whose wings are being pulled off over and over and over again. Arnold sleeps in a large box, wears diapers and dresses like a clown – because it amuses Paige to treat him that way. Or so she says. After years of suffering she takes her joy where she can. And that means she is focused like a laser on humiliating her husband and supporting her son to transition into a person who, were Arnold still able minded and bodied, would have been beaten, probably to death. There is no clean laundry. Everything stays on the floor. There is no food. Arnold survives on mush and medicated shakes. Every spec of hope has been scrubbed out of existence.
Into this modern Hell comes Isaac (Cameron Scoggins), a Marine home on leave. Isaac has his own precious baggage that he is carrying with him. Paige and Max are all too aware that Isaac is damaged goods who is wound every bit as tight as they. But because they are ruling the roost, Isaac will have to play by their rules. The sister is now a brother. The father is now a mumbling idiot who is good for taking up room in the corner and nothing else. The mother is on what looks like a bi-polar tear that consumes everything and everyone. What comes up in her cross hairs will surrender or depart. Paige rules. Paige takes no prisoners.
This is of course a classic recipe for disaster because it is a classic plot: stranger comes into town. Oops.
Isaac – every bit his parents’ son – will not take direction from Paige. We know this as the first act comes to an end. Paige leaves Isaac alone with his father with the strict admonition, “NO cleaning.” The first act is fairly tight and filled with the appropriate tension, even though it is over written. The second act does not fair so well. It does not fair well at all. There is cleaning and then some. We see that coming a mile away. And there is the requisite blow up. After that, however, the steam leaks out of the engine making the entire story slow down to a full stop and a surprise that is not a surprise.
The actors are, to a person, fine. Smith’s direction is multi-leveled and keeps the complex issues from becoming trite. Kristine Nielson minimizes her often executed bobble-head mannerisms, and this is a welcome development because that particular mannerism undermines the fact that she is an excellent actress of great depth and nuance. Nielsen’s Paige has a fire in her belly that no one will put out no matter how hard they try. Oreskes’ Arnold is a disturbing presence living in a world all his own, who vocalizes on whims, but it is a still water running very deep indeed. Tom Phelan’s Max has taken on the maniac gene from his mother, but he skillfully steers his performance away from the stereotype and into that mass of confusion where puberty is compounded by an explosion of change. Scoggins plays Isaac like a tightrope wire that relaxes and snaps to attention over and over again. His is the pain of being lost in his own home – much like the others, except he is the one to wear the burden visibly.
In the end, because of Isaac’s return, the cracks in Paige’s world reveal themselves. Even her adored child, Max, begins to show signs of rebellion, albeit tiny ones. Isaac is no match for Paige, but Max just may be.
The second act left me wondering why I was watching this as well as why the second act so blatantly slips off the edge and falls into the creek. There are so many issues at work here that Taylor Mac has spread himself mighty thin. Perhaps his point is that in life we don’t get just one problem at a time. True. But in art, if we are asked to focus on multiple themes or plots, each with equal weight, it is easy to get lost in the effort. The issues of gender choice, domestic violence, duplicitous real estate developments and reverse mortgages, drugs in the military are all laid out here. And bravo for bringing a spotlight to these carefully avoided topics. The one that wins out in the end, however is simply revenge. As in, once released, revenge splits in two. Half continues on its intended path, and the other half turns back and consumes the person who released it. Mr. Mac clutters his path with plot elements that, in comparison to the singular presence of revenge, pale. We ourselves get lost in the detritus and leave the theatre feeling weighed down rather than engaged and connected.
WITH Kristine Nielsen, Daniel Oreskes, Cameron Scoggins and Tom Phelan
Playwrights Horizons (Tim Sanford, Artistic Director; Leslie Marcus, Managing Director) presents the New York premiere of HIR at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). Originally set to play a limited engagement through Sunday, November 29, the production has already been extended to play an additional week through Sunday, December 6. Tickets Here