avatar user=”Darryl Reilly” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Darryl Reilly, Critic[/avatar] “I’ve become a little more eccentric since last you saw me but I’m not insane” is one of the many insightful lines inimitably delivered by the dazzling Kristine Nielsen in acclaimed performance artist and playwright Taylor Mac’s outrageous and grotesque contemporary American drama Hir.
Ms. Nielsen has long been a treasured award-winning fixture of the New York stage with her quirky idiosyncratic comedic and dramatic talents. Here as the omnipotent matriarch Paige she is colossal. With her animated features, giddy voice, and frantic physicality, she delightfully mines every bit of the abundant dark comedy in the play. Alternately when slowing down to express fiercely serious sentiments she is chilling. This searing performance is yet another memorable turn from this incomparable actress.
Paige’s abusive unemployed plumber husband Arnold had a stroke a few years earlier and is greatly disabled. In the interim, she has become liberated from his tyranny and degrades and torments him à la Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. He is wigged, clothed in dresses, and his face made up as a clown.
She has formed a close bond with her loquacious 17-year-old transgendered son Max. The play’s title is a reference to gender neutrality. “You must use ze instead of the pronouns he or she and you must use the pronoun (pronounced here) hir, H.I.R., in place of the pronouns her or him.”
Housework has ceased as has financial concerns. Mundane preoccupations have been replaced with trips to Paris and regular visits to area art museums in the quest for enlightenment. As a result of shucking off middle-class morality, their rundown suburban California house is a cluttered vision of neglectful squalor in which they blissfully exist.
The harmony of this non-conformist paradise is shattered by the return of Paige’s 24 year-old meth addict son Isaac. He is a dishonorably discharged U.S. Marine in the mortuary detail who has spent three years on tours of duty. Appalled by his family’s bizarre situation, he seeks a return to normalcy and scorching philosophical and physical battles transpire.
“Absurd Realism” is the phrase in his stage directions that is how Mr. Mac describes his play’s style. “…the absurdity comes from a heightened but realistic point of view.” Indeed the plot, characters, and setting are absolutely realistic but their treatment “is so extreme it is absurd.” This production vividly and compellingly achieves that goal.
Three years away from home, in a war zone, I want to have a banner and cookies and a clean home and a father who isn’t dressed up like some tranny clown.
Don’t say that word.
Mac’s relentlessly seriocomic dialogue is exquisitely crafted and the play is structurally accomplished. He has taken the anti-establishment themes of classic theatrical tributes to eccentrics such as You Can’t Take it With You and A Thousand Clowns to brutally subversive new heights that are reminiscent of the works of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Jules Feiffer at their most satirical. There are also plentiful witty aphorisms akin to the best of Edward Albee and societal debates in the spirit of George Bernard Shaw.
Director Niegel Smith’s staging is fast paced and his inspired work renders the author’s vision with picturesque precision. A striking highlight is a hilariously obscene biographical shadow puppet show that some of the characters present. The superb performances he has achieved from the ensemble are a grand blend of zany and terrifying.
Gaunt, wiry, and subdued veering to explosive, the youthful and intense Cameron Scoggins dynamically captures the pathos of Isaac. The stalwart Mr. Scoggins forcefully embodies the archetypical flawed tragic hero with his excellent performance.
Tom Phelan is an impish marvel as Max. This young transgendered actor is charming and authoritatively tosses off Shavian type declarations with breezy skill.
With the poignant grace of a forlorn Samuel Beckett character, Daniel Oreskes brings tremendous dignity to the role Arnold. Garishly made up and costumed, he is perpetually silent but periodically erupts with harrowing sounds and howling words. Mr. Oreskes is mesmerizing.
The richly detailed ramshackle dwelling strewn and crammed with everyday household goods on display is the vibrant creation of scenic designer David Zinn. The realistic costumes are the artful work of Gabriel Berry. The play’s apocalyptic tone is visually and aurally realized by the high caliber lighting and sound design of Mike Inwood and Fitz Patton, respectively.
“…it’s dealing with the mainstream; rather, the remnants of the former body politic and a rise of the new progressive body politic” is how Taylor Mac explains his play’s intentions in the program notes.
Hir is a provocative and often unsettling work that boldly explores present day issues in the United States with grim flair.
Hir (extended through January 3, 2016)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212- 279–4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission
Kristine Nielsen is dazzling as an omnipotent matriarch in this outrageous and grotesque anti-establishment drama about her wildly dysfunctional family.