Defined by Disability?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The two acts of Tribes, Nina Raine's play at the Mark Taper Forum, feel so radically different that I almost want to talk about them as different plays.

Act One is heady and filled with ideas and promise. Act Two...well, Act Two is a tad too predictable.

Let's start with the promise. The first act revolves around the dining table of a family of British wits. It's the end of a dinner and in this particular clan that means a boisterous argument. If you're lucky you know a family like this; if you're unlucky you're a part of one. Dad's an acerbic writer and ex-professor in his 60's - think the earlier liberal Christopher Hitchens but in yoga pants. Mom's a writer too, she's working on a dysfunctional family detective novel, which is appropriate because all three of her children, in their twenties, still live at home.

Daniel is struggling to finish his thesis on the "radically indeterminate" nature of language. Ruth is trying to find her voice as a hip opera singer and somehow get to the emotional truth of Wagner - after all how could language ever capture everything that can be said with music. Then at the end of the table, sitting silently, is the youngest son, Billy.

If you didn't notice the hearing aids, you'd know Billy was different because he doesn't seem to be participating in the blood sport this family calls conversation. You see Billy's deaf...but that doesn't slow down his family. The verbal jabs are flying so quickly you can barely keep up, which is part of the point and a clever conceit that gives us a little peak into Billy's world.

Into this perfect family discord enter the catalyst of Sylvia, who Billy falls in love with and who teaches him sign language. Then, at least from Billy's family's perspective, the trouble begins.

What's wonderful about Tribes, at least in the first act, is it's a complicated play about language, meaning, listening and deafness. Playwright Nina Raine draws a wonderfully flawed family who all have unique voices. She throws out explicit and implicit notions of the limits of language, some through heady diatribes and others through inspired situations, like the family's farcical parody of sign language while Mom's on the phone.

It feels like a play that includes disability not a play defined by disability.

But that's Act One.

In Act Two, the family falls all but silent. All the complication disappears and suddenly the play focuses on Billy. It becomes the predictable "identity" play. Swirling ideas are replaced by a familiar narrative arc. As the dad, himself, bemoans, "My God, it’s like he’s coming out or something."

Don't get me wrong, the first step is 'identity' plays. But that's a step the Taper took almost 35 years ago with the premiere of Children of a Lesser God. The tragedy of Tribes is one of unrealized promise, of not taking the next step in the conversation.

For Act One alone, Tribes is worth seeing. Maybe even slip out after the heartbreaking scene before intermission? You'll leave with a world of complicated questions rather than familiar answers.

Tribes plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through April 14.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission

Banner image: (L-R) Jeff Still, Le Roy Rogers, Gayle Rankin, Will Brill, Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar in Tribes. Photo by Craig Schwartz