by: Michael Bracken
Kristine Nielsen is funny.
On Broadway and off, in a slew of Christopher Durang plays and works as dark as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she’s always good for a laugh with her wide-eyed cluelessness and ditzy delivery. But sometimes it’s a little hard to tell one performance from another. You feel like you’ve seen it before because, at least to a certain extent, you have. Her portrayals tend to run together.
This is why her work in Taylor Mac’s boisterous, subversive Hir, at Playwrights Horizons, is so stunning. Nielsen hasn’t lost her trademark mannerisms – mincing steps and statements that sound like questions – but there’s a depth to her performance, a subtext of rage that’s unexpected and welcome. It’s Gracie Allen meets Darth Vader, with the tongue and fangs of a viper. And both sides of the equation ring true. She’s riveting, laced with vitriol yet still flakey. Even at her funniest there’s an undercurrent of contempt.
Eventually we learn the source of her spleen, or at least one source. Rancor like hers is a complex affair, not necessarily with a single cause. But at its most basic level Nielsen’s character’s hostility is aimed at her nearly speechless, virtually helpless husband.
In Hir (a gender-neutral pronoun combining “him” and “her”), Nielsen is Paige, the capricious matriarch of an uber-dysfunctional family. Her husband, Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), suffered a mini-stroke, and she, in a manner of speaking, cares for him. Arnold had beaten her and their younger son repeatedly after losing his job and before the stroke, and now it’s payback time. Paige dresses him in a house dress, a rainbow clown wig, and garish makeup with blush as red as blood.
The play starts with elder son Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) returning home from the service. We think it’s a visit, that he’s the one note of normalcy in this misguided menagerie, but later find out he’s been dishonorably discharged for doing crystal meth through his anus. Isaac has a brother who used to be a sister (Max, played by Tom Phelan). He’s upstairs dressing when Isaac arrives. Isaac visits with his parents in a living room that looks like World War IV, since chaos is the prevailing design theme and Paige didn’t feel like folding wash that day.
She gives Isaac a brief lesson in which terms are politically correct and what acronyms are appropriate to use with his former sister, current brother.
It’s hard to know whether playwright Mac is mimicking or lauding the gender turmoil that reigns under Paige’s domain, but one thing’s for sure: Paige relishes it. Dressing Arnie in a violet muumuu, which she claims is for comfort and convenience, is clearly a form of revenge. She humiliates him at every chance she gets.
Her encouragement of Max’s gender transformation is harder to decipher. Maybe she feels Max’s becoming a woman somehow avenges Arnie’s beatings. Or maybe she just likes its unconventionality, a quality she embraces enthusiastically. But whatever the logic or illogic of her embracing Max’s sex, she’s more than supportive. She’s an ecstatic, energetic cheerleader, eager to share with Isaac every detail he doesn’t want to hear. She’s like a mother bragging about her son’s straight A’s.
Mac’s tragicomedy couldn’t be more gender-laden, and yet it’s really furor that drives Hir. It offers no easy answers but serves up lots of questions. It also balances comedy with drama in a proportion that just about always seems right. Director Niegel Smith gets excellent performances not just from Nielsen but from the rest of the cast as well. The ebb and flow of the play’s mood is hypnotic. And David Zinn’s set, which magically morphs from turmoil to tidiness, offers a few chuckles of its own.
Through December 20 – Playwrights Horizons Peter J. Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd Street. www.PHnyc.org 1 hour 50 minutes with intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus