Great storytelling has returned to the theater with a vengeance. Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” being given its West Coast premiere at the Taper, is one of several new plays presented here that reject the David Mamet miniaturized approach to drama where almost nothing happens to two or three characters in 90 minutes or less. Raine’s characters are big and real, and she isn’t afraid to juggle several storylines that will have you asking at intermission (yes, there’s an intermission), “What happens next?” and make you eager to return to your seat.
In this great vein of storytelling, the Taper recently presented Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” and Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.” Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams must be smiling. Raines presents a full-size family of five in which all of the three grown kids live at home and don’t work, and father Christopher (Jeff Still), a successful writer-academic is tired of supporting them and doesn’t mind telling them — at the top of his voice. And often. Aspirations abound but real talent is in short supply in this family. In her 60s, wife Beth (Lee Roy Rogers) is writing a detective novel. As for the children, Daniel (Will Brill) is writing his thesis, Ruth (Gayle Rankin) sings opera in a pub and Billy (Russell Harvard), well, he’s deaf. Dad doesn’t mind telling everybody else they have no talent — Daniel is good at doing comic impressions, says Dad — and Billy, well, he’s deaf and therefore forgiven everything. Dad calls him his favorite. But by play’s end, Billy will have called himself the family mascot.
At intermission, it appears that Raine, who has written the other characters so vividly, has forgotten about Billy. How would you describe him? He smiles a lot. He asks “what?” a lot when his lip-reading fails him, and in the middle of this family maelstrom, he’s the one spot of peace and quiet.
Like all great actors, Harvard can command attention by seemingly doing nothing. He possesses great stillness. But, of course, Raine lets him erupt eventually, not with verbal speech but through ASL (American Sign Language) — the kind of speech that the family has denied teaching him.
The catalyst for Billy’s rebellion is a love interest and not just any old love interest. In an evening filled with rich characters, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar) may be the most intriguing. She’s losing her hearing, and unlike Billy, perhaps, she knows precisely what she’s missing, and now finds herself straddling precariously between two worlds, neither of which fully accepts her. The character is much more than a writer’s device to bring out the real Billy, and Pourfar’s head-on-head clash with Still perfectly crystallizes the power of her quiet rage and the emptiness of his verbose bluster.
There’s more. Perhaps too much more in the character of Daniel. What isn’t he suffering? He’s bipolar, he stutters, he hears voices. Brill, fortunately, makes sense of him, and his final scene where Daniel can only communicate with his beloved brother through ASL is deeply moving.
Director David Cromer brings his talented cast intact from New York’s Barrow Street Theater. That same production’s design team is also onboard. The Taper offers a much larger space, and Scott Pask has provided his living room set with a vertiginous staircase. The only way out is up.
(Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 750 seats; $70 top)
A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in two acts by Nina Raine. Directed by David Cromer. Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Tristan Raines; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Daniel Kluger; projections, Jeff Sugg. Opened and reviewed March 10, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.
With: Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Susan Pourfar, Gayle Rankin, Lee Roy Rogers, Jeff Still.