×

Legit Review: ‘Tribes’

Director David Cromer brings his talented New York cast to L.A.

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.

Tribes

(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.

Popular on Variety

Legit Review: 'Tribes'

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content