DF Reviews Hir (Playwrights Horizons)

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Cameron Scoggins and Tom Phelan in Hir at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Hir, Taylor Mac’s electrifying, take-no-prisoners play, struck me like a bolt of lightening – all the more because only hours before, I’d seen Mark Gerrard’s Steve, a rather more traditional gay comedy, playing a block away. Hir is also is a comedy – but in terms of tone… oh, my – we are in a new world!

Mac is a writer and performance artist known for resisting categorization – particularly in terms of sexual identity, a concept he explores (perhaps explodes is more like it) with distinctively personal slyness. (The program notes inform us that Mac’s preferred pronoun is “judy.”)

It’s tempting to think of Hir as a play about gender – more specifically, transgender, since one of the four characters is a teenager, Max, who was born female, but now identifies as male. Max serves a combination lightning rod and catalytic agent for his parents (Paige and Arnold); even more so for his brother (Isaac), a returning – and clearly struggling – war veteran.

Much of the first act is devoted to transgender issues and nomenclature, as Paige tries to explain the situation to Isaac. (Spoiler: It doesn’t go well – Isaac is puking in the sink even before he actually sees Max. “Hir,” by the way, is Max’s preferred pronoun.) This sequence gives the virtuosic Kristine Nielsen, who plays Paige, some of her best moments; it’s also some script’s funniest comic material, which simultaneously skewers and celebrates transgender politics. Mac’s singular ability to play both sides – without sarcasm or cynicism – is one of the glories of Hir.

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Kristine Nielsen in Hir at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

But, as I’m sure the Mac would point out, it would be unfair to pigeonhole Hir (the play, or Max). Transgender issues aside, this is a work deeply connected to the long, distinguished history of American family drama. We could go back as far as Death of a Salesman, though both the script and the in-your-face inventiveness of director Niegel Smith’s production are tied more to the iconoclastic, absurdist world of Albee’s The American Dream – or, even closer, to Sam Shepard’s mordantly droll Curse of the Starving Class.

Hir shares with all of these a vision of disintegrating families – combative parents, and correspondingly unanchored children. Arnold, once a threatening, abusive husband and father, had a debilitating stroke, giving Paige the upper hand – which she exercises with gleeful cruelty. (When we first meet Arnold, he’s wearing a housedress and clown make up – Paige likes him better this way.) Max’s evolving role in the family – first son/brother, now daughter/sister – is a fraught, ongoing negotiation.

And then there’s Isaac, who is at once the center of the play and its true outsider. The circumstances of his military discharge aren’t entirely explained – but what is clear is that the poor guy never stood a chance. Without giving too much away, I will say that by the end, Hir is as much a study of returning veterans trying to pick up the pieces as it is a play about gender.

But then, that’s the beauty of Hir – it will resonate differently for different viewers. It certainly packs a punch in director Niegel Smith’s vivid production, superbly designed and performed. Daniel Oreskes strikes an ideal balance as Arnold, simultaneously pitiable and scary. Cameron Scoggins’ Isaac is a kind of battered Everyman, and Tom Phelan is a marvelously Puck-ish Max.

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Daniel Oreskes and Cameron Scoggins in Hir at Playwrights Horizons. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

As for the aforementioned Kristine Nielsen – her Paige crowns a career of dazzlingly off-center comedic turns. Yet, I can imagine a completely different interpretation – something less funny and more threatening – that would work equally well.

With luck, there will be many opportunities to see Hir, in this production and others. It is definitely a play for this moment, but one I think that will also stand the test of time.


 

Hir, at Playwrights Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theater,  416 West 42nd Street, New York, through January 3.  For tickets click here.

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