Sunday, November 22, 2015

105. Review: HIR (seen November 21)

"From One War Zone to Another"
Stars range from 5-1.

Because of scheduling issues I didn’t get to see Taylor Mac’s HIR until just now, two weeks after it opened at Playwright Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The wait whetted my appetite: I didn’t know Mr. Mac’s work as a writer but was blown away by his performance as the woman who impersonates a man in THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN a few seasons back (Mr. Mac is a renowned drag performer). Then there was the presence of the gifted comic actress Kristine Nielsen, whose hilariously broad performance in Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE practically made me bepiss myself. Throw into the mix a barrelful of adoring reviews, including one from the New York Times calling HIR “sensational,” and I was primed for a grand old time. It’s my duty, instead, to report that the time I had was less than prime and that I’m filing a minority report.

Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
HIR, whose raucous style the playwright calls Absurd Realism, is set during a hot summer in the realistically detailed kitchen/family room (designed by David Zinn and lit by Mike Inwood) of a California “starter home” in which (to use the terms attached to his characters by the playwright) the cisgender Paige Connor (Ms. Neilsen) and the cisgender Arnold Connor (Daniel Oreskes)—have lived for 30 years and where they’ve raised their kids, Isaac (Cameron Scoggins), called “I,” and Max (Tom Phelan). When the deliberately chintzy curtain opens, we see Arnold standing and eating cereal amid an explosion of dirty dishes, laundry, mattresses, blankets, tchotchkes, boxes, and family crap that looks like domestic Armageddon. He’s wearing a woman’s nightdress and a rainbow-colored afro clown wig, and his heavily made-up face is capped with grotesquely arching eyebrows.
Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s a knock; it’s the cisgender Isaac, home from three years in a war zone as a Marine, picking up body parts in Mortuary Affairs, but so much junk is blocking the front, he has to enter from the back door. Isaac, his hair in a military buzz cut, has been dishonorably discharged for methamphetamine abuse (“I got caught blowing meth up my ASSHOLE!” he later reveals). Not only do his eyes practically jump out of his head when he sees the mess, he’s bowled over to discover that Arnold suffered, not a mild stroke, as Paige had led him to believe, but a massive one, and that his tomboy sister Maxine is transitioning into Max through hormones (“mones”) obtained on the Internet.
Kristine Nielsen, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Arnold, a racist plumber who lost his job to an Asian American woman, was a violently abusive, wall-punching, controlling husband and father, who even raped his wife (a memory shown, unnecessarily, in a family shadow puppet show), but has been reduced by his stroke to a monosyllabic, diaper-wearing dodo. The vengeful Paige has turned things around by becoming Arnold’s personal emasculator, deliberately letting his once pristine environment become a cruddy pigsty. She makes him sleep in a cardboard box and, when he misbehaves, spritzes him with water. The A/C is kept on at full blast, even though the house is freezing.
Cameron Scoggins, Daniel Oreskes (seated). Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Isaac tries to absorb this he also must deal with Max, who’s midway between male and female and is to be called not “he” or “she” but “ze,” and not “him” or “her” but “hir” (pronounced “here”). Max, who dreams of joining a queer commune of anarchists, is being homeschooled by Paige (who doesn’t want him bullied), although he’s highly intelligent and insists it’s he who’s teaching Paige, not the other way around. Isaac attempts to man up his willing young sibling, Marine-style, despite Paige’s objections.
Cameron Scoggins, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
 The play spends a lot of its hour and 50 minutes playfully and seriously explaining issues relating to the subject du jour of gender fluidity, which Paige has embraced after “search engine-ing” it, an experience she describes as “like being baptized, only without the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm.” (Yes, that’s how she and Max sometimes speak.) She’s even spelled out the new gender alphabet with fridge magnets:  LGBTTSQQIAA. The dialogue abounds in jargon-laced gender identity talk, but, for all the spirited comic energy with which it’s presented, a didactic aroma wafts over its satirical attack on conventional family relationships, the patriarchy’s downfall, and the myth of the gender binary.  
Kristine Nielsen, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Isaac’s unable to accept the transformed conditions, and, apparently attempting to reassert the “male-dominated hegemonic paradigm,” straightens the place up while Paige is off visiting a museum (the stagehands really earn their salaries during the intermission). He and Paige spend much of their time yelling at one another, so much so, in fact, that the actors could qualify for an article about their voices in the Times. Isaac also vomits a lot at each twist of the new family value system, especially when Paige whips up a special Estrogen drink in the blender intended to maintain Arnold’s docility.
Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mr. Mac says that “Absurd Realism is simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.” One can’t deny the production’s realistic—even hyper-realistic—visual impact, and the general circumstances are real enough, but it’s the extremity of the performances that exemplify the use of “absurd.” Under Niegel Smith’s insistent direction, everything is so overblown that you feel like you’ve wandered into a real nut house; if Ms. Nielsen, in particular, had to interact with real people on the outside she’d be in a straitjacket before you could say Jack Nicholson.
Tom Phelan, Cameron Scoggins, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although the audience laughed often, Ms. Nielsen seemed to be giving a master class in how she could deploy her trademark shtick to create a darkly manic character; her achievement is both technically brilliant and frequently disturbing in its sudden transitions, head-bobbling, eye-popping, and prance-walking with fluttering hands held high like rabbit paws. Somehow, though, she manages to keep her inner focus and wrestles the character into life, even though you may want to punch her in the nose. Mr. Scoggins’s frustrated Isaac is sympathetic (which doesn’t seem to be Mr. Mac’s intention), Mr. Phelan makes a very interesting hir, and Mr. Oreskes struggles to make his thankless role convincing. 


Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 20