New York City’s Broadway is famous for first rate theater, but if you like modern, edgy and experimental you’re well advised to seek out the off-Broadway environment where risks are taken and ground is broken.

We are particular fans of the Barrow Street Theater, in the west Village.  We saw Bug there, which later was made into a movie with Ashley Judd.  We saw Red Light Winter.  And this trip, we completely enjoyed Tribes, written by Nina Raine and brilliantly directed by David Cromer.

Billy is deaf.  Always has been.  He doesn’t sign because his very eccentric family refused to teach him–he has learned to speak and to read lips phenomenally well.  Speech and sound are integral to the other members of the family–father is a retired professor of linguistics, mother is a budding novelist, brother Dan is writing a thesis, sister Ruth thinks she wants to be an opera singer.  The play opens around the kitchen table with everyone talking, arguing, preening, crowing, badgering and postulating, with Billy trying manfully to follow it all.

Then Billy meets Sylvia, a young woman who can hear but is going deaf.  Her parents are deaf, too, so she know how to sign and begins to teach Billy, whose world then opens up.

But as Billy comes into his own, his family disintegrates, especially his brother Dan, who regresses into stuttering incomprehensibility.

The cast is all excellent, starting with Russell Harvard, who is deaf, as Billy. Mare Winningham plays the mother, with a pitch-perfect British accent.

Barrow Street is a small theater–196 seats.  The play is set in the middle of the building, with ranks of seats on all 4 sides. My only cavil with the production is that the surtitles used to explicate the sign language are often very difficult to read.

Is it coincidence that the two strongest plays we saw,  Tribes  and Death of a Salesman, focused on family and communications issues?


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