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Hir

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Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036 40.758691 -73.993384
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Starting at $65

Tickets

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Advance Tickets Recommended

Director

Niegel Smith

Cast

Kristine Nielsen, Daniel Oreskes, Tom Phelan, Cameron Scoggins

Nearby Subway Stops

A, C, E at 42nd St.-Port Authority Bus Terminal

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The home that Isaac returns to at the beginning of Taylor Mac’s smart but deliberately disorienting new play Hir is not the one he left when he enlisted as a Marine three years earlier. His abusive father, Arnold, has suffered a debilitating stroke. His tomboy sister, Maxine, has begun a do-it-yourself gender transition with hormones bought on the internet, and has now emerged as his “sissy” brother, Max. Far from resenting or mourning these disruptions, Isaac’s mother, Paige, is electrified by them. Max’s escape from biology has provided a model for her own escape from the rigid control of a violent husband and housewifely expectation; she no longer cooks, cleans, or bothers to maintain any order in their nightmarishly cluttered home. (“We don’t do cupboards anymore,” she says. “We don’t do order.”) Rather, she joyfully indulges her formerly suppressed interests and preferences, from art to air-conditioning. And Arnold’s stroke has provided her with an opportunity for revenge. Drugging him into docility, she dresses him in a lavender nightgown and a bedazzled kitten sweater, with finishing touches that include elaborate drag makeup and a rainbow clown wig. He sleeps in a box on the filthy kitchen floor: “He has not earned the right to be cared for.”

If you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this spectacle, I suspect that’s how Mac likes it; in the script he describes Hir’s genre with the oxymoron “absurd realism.” For the realism part, there is, as the title indicates, a great deal of instruction on the new prerogatives of gender: Max prefers the pronouns “ze” instead of “he” or “she,” and “hir” (pronounced “here”) instead of “his” or “her.” Magnets on the fridge spell out the absurd acronymic pile-up LGBTTSQQIAA, pronounced “lug-a-BUTT-squee-ah.” But if the freedom of gender self-definition is celebrated as the “root” of all other freedoms, it is also satirized, Mac deftly catching the way liberation quickly becomes another form of control. “Ze wants you to say ‘ze’ or ‘hir’ as if this had been part of your regular speaking vocabulary your entire life,” Paige explains to the nonplussed Isaac. “Any breach in decorum will cause hir to write in hir blog about how awful hir troglodyte fascist heteronormative mother is. It’s fantastic.”

Max is mostly a caricature of invented self-entitlement, which the play gets away with by defining hir as a bratty teen. (“I’m allowed to be selfish ’cause I’m in transition,” ze says.) But if satire were all Hir had up its sleeve, it would not merit a full-length treatment and would not grow so dark and difficult. I have to assume it was a deliberate choice, and not just an accident of plotting, that Paige, in the ecstasy of her release from domination (which, we are told, included sexual violence) is monstrously unkind. There is, of course, her treatment of Arnold, who perhaps can be said to deserve it — though because his cruelties are merely described while hers are demonstrated, the play does not successfully dramatize the point. But in any case, what has poor back-from-the-war Isaac done? Clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his years in a mortuary unit, he is greeted upon his return not only by radical change in each of his relatives but by the explicit message that he, like his father, is a “leftover piece” of the old order and thus “no longer necessary.” Is it any wonder that as he decompensates, desperately trying to reassert control while the new order pushes him out, some of our sympathy goes with him?

I have to assume that Mac is critiquing, not endorsing, this dark side of liberation politics, much as early Soviet playwrights sent up flares of warning about the dangers of a politics without pity. If so, he is uniquely well placed to do so. No one in the contemporary theater has better gender-queer bona fides, or a better sense of humor about it all. (His tongue-in-cheek bio reveals that Mac prefers the lower-case pronoun “judy,” as in “judy’s plays include The Lily’s Revenge and the forthcoming 24-Decade History of Popular Music.”) In his other work, Mac’s maximalism has almost always paid off, not only in terms of gorgeous maquillage and feats of endurance but in his ambition for theater as a communal tool. But here, the huge kaleidoscope of attempted analysis — gender, class, political, aesthetic — makes it difficult to track his intentions. The somewhat chaotic production by Niegel Smith also gets in the way. Kristine Nielsen, of course, is no stranger to maximalism; she is almost a shrine to it, with her full-frequency voice and spring-loaded eyes. If she cannot make Paige make sense, she does make her watchable. Daniel Oreskes, as Arnold, is also compelling, even when his dialogue consists of little but grunts. But Cameron Scoggins as Isaac and Tom Phelan as Max only rarely get out from under their dramaturgical burdens to connect organically with the material, let alone land a laugh. I’m not sure anyone could.

For that matter, I’m not sure that’s what Mac wants. Certainly, he’s far too genre-queer for traditional comedy, with its consistent characters and sculpted plots. Nor, with all its laughs, is this a tragedy, except in the longest view. Hir is evidently meant to be something new, something in between, which is as difficult a goal for a play as it is for Max as an identity. Perhaps we’ve come at least far enough as a society and as theatergoers to say that ze (and judy) may, even as they struggle and make mistakes, have something important to say. -Jesse Green

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