Nina Raine’s new play "Tribes" starts with a thunderclap of a family fight that heralds the advance of a steady rain of change falling on a London family whose dysfunction is finally revealed by one member’s attempt to emancipate himself.
In tackling this dining-room drama with the additional layer of a conversation on disability and the way it shapes a person’s world, "Tribes" swings for the fences but neglects some of the nuances of the situation it carefully lays out in the beginning of the first act.
The unspoken belief in the family is that son Billy (Russell Harvard, of "There Will Be Blood"), deaf from birth, is no different from his hearing siblings, singer Ruth (Gayle Rankin) and grad student Daniel (Will Brill). He may even have a slight edge in his inability to hear father Chris (Jeff Perry), a bossy author know-it-all, contentiously take down his wife (Mare Winningham) and children for their life choices.
Having four adults at home around which to orbit makes him the unchallenged head of the household. This is criticism above which Billy has sailed until the day he brings home Sylvie (Susan Pourfar), a woman he met at a Deaf art exhibit who is a Deaf activist and in the process of losing her hearing.
She leads Billy to question his difference from the family through their rejection of sign language, but Chris reacts against the idea that his son could join a culture into which he has no passage.
Raine’s writing is tight and sharp, but the play itself could be a little less baggy: Deviating from the dining room from which Chris issues his pronouncements, scenes tend to meander, and Sylvie and Billy’s meet-cute is more of a meet-restless for both participants and audience.
Still, the strong chemistry and responses among members of the family (Rankin and Harvard particularly) make "Tribes" buzz along toward the inevitable confrontation of the patriarch, albeit with some detours into Lessons about how Billy’s childhood has shaped his life, just as Sylvie’s experience with hearing will color her oncoming deafness.
What’s missing from "Tribes" is the particular stamp of director David Cromer, who brought such emotion and richness to "Adding Machine" and "Our Town" (also at Barrow Street); here he nails the dynamic but not the emotional underpinnings that would make "Tribes" great instead of very good.
"Tribes" runs through Jan. 21 at the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow St. There will be an open-captioned performance on April 28. For tickets and info, call 212-243-6262 or visit barrowstreettheatre.com/whats-on/tribes.asp.