|City Theatre's "Tribes" L-R: Tad Cooley as Billy, Amanda Kearns as Sylvia, Robin Abramson as Ruth, John Judd as Christopher, Laurie Klatscher as Beth and Alex Hoeffler as Daniel. Credit: Mark Garvin|
"Tribes" comes to Pittsburgh’s City Theatre with some pretty hefty credentials.
In 2012, it won the Drama Desk Award for "Best Play" and in addition to getting a fair share of rave critical acclaim, also happens to be one of the most performed plays of the still early 2014 theater season.
Furthermore, its author, Nina Raine, won the Critics Circle Award for most "Promising Playwright" for her 2006 debut work "Rabbit." All these and more insinuate an expected potency even before the curtain goes up.
However, as one who enjoys brainy comedy mixed with heartfelt sentiment, I must have missed something when I honed in on unearthing its superlative-laden reputation. For me "Tribes" a good play, but not necessarily a great one.
The artsy family of intellectuals that make up the bulk of the characters is certainly colorful and witty enough. They seem to make a game of communicating with one another, each trying to outdo one another in conversational skill, their often sarcastic comments and pithy rejoinders hiding beneath the surface a mutual affection and an emotional symbiosis.
As the family patriarch, Christopher (John Judd), academic and critic by profession, sets the tone and pace for his family of bohemian wannabees. As Bess, the caring matriarch, Laurie Klatscher is both a good match for her feisty mate and a buffer between the spirited conversational combatants who, in her spare time, is writing a "marriage-falling-apart detective novel."
Following his father’s footsteps into academia, son Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) is shown balancing the completion of a thesis about language with a recent romantic breakup, the intermittent reoccurrence of a stutter and a disabling series of equally intermittent auditory hallucinations.
Raine doesn’t seem to give daughter Ruth (Robin Abramson), who struggles to make a career in opera, the same verbal armament and skill at repartee as the rest of her family, but even she gets her licks in when push comes to shove. As the younger son, Billy (Tad Cooley), has a definite disadvantage when it comes to familial conversational interplay in that he’s deaf, but he makes up for this shortcoming to a degree by being adept at lip reading.
Billy’s life veers of course when he meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), the daughter of deaf parents who "signs" with the best of them. Losing her own hearing in stages due to a genetic defect, she introduces Billy to the hearing impaired community, a "tribe" that serves as an alternate to his regular familial clan. Billy’s growing affection for Sylvia and his introduction to another community of like souls ruptures his ingrained household relationships, especially those with his brother and causes him and the audience to see deafness (and communication) in a new light.
Director Stuart Carden takes risks by driving the dialogue at a rapid pace. In comedy, rhythm is a crucial element, and the cast is up to the challenge. Fortunately, the well-honed ensemble has had plenty of time to get things running like a well-oiled machine after a previous run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which co-produced the play with the City Theatre.
The acting is strictly top-notch and includes the veteran Judd with an extensive national and international portfolio of work and two actresses who recently won the "Post-Gazette Performer of the Year Award" - Abramson in 2009 for her work in City Theatre’s "Mary’s Wedding" and "Blackbird" and Klatscher in 2011 for her performances in "Precious Little" and "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods."
"Tribes" opens up new vistas into the world of the hearing impaired and deepens an appreciation for the impediments they try to overcome. It also creates a new awareness of the vagaries of communication and an appreciation of the ability to comprehend the spoken word. Unfortunately, for me, it failed climb to the Elysian heights of dramatic greatness I had expected.
"Tribes" is at Pittsburgh City Theatre through March 30. Phone 412-431-CITY (2489).