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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kristine Nielsen and Cameron Scoggins
Photo by Joan Marcus

What price—if any—is too high to pay for progress? That's the question abrasively and confusingly asked in Taylor Mac's new play at Playwrights Horizons's Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Hir.

The title word, in case you need a primer, is a possessive pronoun replacement for "him" and "her," applicable for use by those who wish to avoid expressing definite concepts of gender. (Subbing for "he" and "she" is "ze.") And, indeed, Mac bases this play, which has been directed by Niegel Smith, on the idea that gender, as it's traditionally been perceived, is archaic and insufficient for describing the rainbow of identifications in use today.

This is lesson is learned in the hardest way possible by Isaac (Cameron Scoggins), who returns home from his third tour in the marines (his job was picking up body parts after battles) to discover that entropy has apparently consumed his entire family. Following a stroke, dad Arnold (Daniel Oreskes) can no longer speak full sentences or care for himself, wanders around wearing clown makeup and a pink woman's bathrobe, and lives in a cardboard-box fort. Isaac's sister Max has been taking testosterone and now looks male (and is played by Tom Phelan). As for mom Paige (Kristine Nielsen), she's jumped wholeheartedly into supporting Max's transition, and has redefined everything about herself, from her vocabulary on up, to get with that program.

Kristine Nielsen and Tom Phelan
Photo by Joan Marcus

In the short term, this is what's behind the state of the house. It's charitably a mess, beyond what even a living-room tornado would likely inflict, with dishes and clothes piled up everywhere and holes pockmarking the filthy ways, and an air conditioner running full-bore all the time. (David Zinn's set is a clever rendition of a cramped, old-fashioned mass-production starter house beneath all the trash.) And, for that matter, it explains Arnold, who has become astonishingly vegetable-like for someone who reportedly suffered only a minor stroke; Paige just wants nothing to do with him anymore. In the long term, however, Paige is planning to take bold steps to build a safe and comfortable life for Max, and isn't afraid of walking over Arnold or Isaac—who takes after him and his hypermasculinity—to do it. In fact, she has to: They represent everything that she has come to despise.

Mac has ensured that Paige has good reasons for feeling as she does, and exactly why she's put Arnold and Isaac in her crosshairs is a mystery that requires most of the play to fully reveal. There's a satisfying underlying structure here that guides you, like the characters, from the beginning to the end of the most chaotic day ever for this family. Under Smith's care, all of the actors are on point, with Scoggins's over-the-top cishet spin on Isaac, Oreskes's demented little-boy-lost portrayal of Arnold, and Phelan making Max equally energetic and haunted.

Most touching is Nielsen's Paige: Her trademark daffiness, plied so frequently and well particularly in plays by Christopher Durang, works as a baseline, but when she pulls away from it and speaks, still-faced, in a near-contralto drawl, the chill she sends down your spine proves to you that Paige means business. She's devoted to both her family and her cause, and is not immune to the war going on inside her, and Nielsen expertly wrangles that confliction into a remarkable centerpiece performance.

But to what end? For the fascinating upending of the traditional living-room family comedy that Mac has effected, the underlying message is terrifyingly bleak. Paige the hero and Max her prophet are advocating for a complete breakdown of their society, which Mac does not convince us is a world worth living in. How many will consider this quartet's dung heap of a living room a positive environment? How many will believe that a father, however prone to mistreating his family, needs to be abused this way? Or that Isaac, who wants only to do right and do well despite his missteps, deserves a fate that's no better?

"They're two people who tried to run their environment using the traditions they'd been given," Mac writes in a program note about the two men, "failed violently, and can't be allowed to be in charge any longer." But Paige and Max "believe they're on the verge of freeing themselves. They've fought back and are reaping the benefits. It's glorious." Whatever those benefits are, they're not represented at all onstage, given how drastically Paige and Max hurt Arnold and Isaac, and how hollowed out they appear to be beneath their millimeter-thin optimistic shells; when their masks slip, what's underneath looks anything but glorious.

Perhaps Mac is forwarding the notion that obsession over one particular brand of equality is no better than obsession over the absence of it that Isaac and Arnold represent. Perhaps it's all meant as highly symbolic, and thus not to be viewed seriously. But his program note and the shape of the play as a whole suggest that it is supposed to be taken at face value. And what's here is incomplete, a photo of something potentially interesting that is half-developed at best. To accept this vision of the world, we must accept the characters without reservation, but dropped hints about Arnold's monstrous nature and the PTSD that may be driving Isaac beyond endurance don't inform them enough for us to take Paige and Max's side. Instead, we sympathize with their victims, which in no way seems to be what Mac wanted.

It's impossible, then, to know exactly what to make of Hir. It's so uncompromising that alternating reactions of adoration and revulsion would not be surprising. For me, I'm somewhere in between: admiring of the raw artistry visible in each of this production's elements, but not buying at all the thesis that the playwright claims to be proffering. Mac is clearly passionate about whatever is being said, but hasn't injected the detail and context that might make it work.

If nothing else, Hir will no doubt spark lively discussions, and with an issue as hot-button as this one, perhaps that's justification enough for its existence. But with so little meat on this play's bones, Paige and Max's version of freedom looks a whole lot like just another kind of cage.

Through December 6
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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