Harold Pinter said, “There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when … a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it.” Nina Raine has taken this sentiment to heart in her new play Tribes, which centers on the ferocious, suffocating love between a pair of brothers, Billy (Russell Harvard), who is deaf, and Daniel (Will Brill), a schizophrenic who has more and more trouble drowning out the voices in his head. The family is rounded out by their father Christopher (Jeff Perry), an acerbic professor-turned-critic and their mother Beth (Mare Winningham), a woman who writes genre fiction in a house full of genuine and pseudo-intellectuals—even their sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) has an ostensibly creative career (she sings opera in English).
So while Billy relies on the first kind of silence, the rest resort to the second; their mouths are like machine-guns, constantly spitting out dialogue but never saying anything. They appear to be rather open about sex and masturbation and surface feelings, but will still do anything to avoid addressing serious issues. Ms. Raine may have had a sly smile on her face as she wrote Christopher’s line, “We don’t know what feelings are until we put them into words.” This is a family that is in love with the tricks and verbal aerobics available through language and who are nonetheless unable to speak to each other.
All becomes unsustainable, however, when Billy falls in love with a deaf girl, Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), and decides to move away from home. He was the quiet, unassuming glue that kept the family together, and without him all their relationships collapse—Christopher and Beth must confront the fact that by stubbornly raising Billy as an equal, they have in fact ignored his deafness and isolated him from the family; Daniel, meanwhile, edges closer and closer to insanity.
Dysfunctional families have furnished American theater with material for decades, almost to the point that it has become unbearable. Tribes, however, manages to approach the trope with a nice freshness. It juggles a series of issues—the politics of disability communities, the limits of intellectualism—while remaining an entirely engaging drama. Fortunately, Ms. Raine and director David Cromer are aided by a first-rate cast. Mr. Perry steals nearly all his scenes as a relentlessly hilarious dick—he introduces his son as “Daniel, who’s writing a thesis that we all ironise”—and yet behind his somewhat mean-spirited joviality, we can see a man well aware that his marriage is falling apart. Mr. Harvard, who actually is deaf, plays his character with a convincing fluency and without a trace of condescension, and Mr. Brill begins with a lightness that steadily descends into an absorbing emotional intensity.
At one point, Christopher accuses sign language of being “Broken English,” though the point is that all language is necessarily broken. Tribes, a thematic if not stylistic descendant of Samuel Beckett’s work, uses the most verbal of all media to measure the boundaries of communication. This is no easy task and yet Ms. Raine has produced a play that feels effortless.