You’re liable to enjoy Christopher at first. The 60-year-old patriarch of an urban British family that includes three grown children and Beth, the solicitous mum, he’s an academic of some kind who likes to think of himself as an honest bastard. A let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may sort. Archie Bunker with an advanced degree. Even at the dinner table, in the bosom of his nuclear unit, he’s arrogantly literary, aggressively argumentative, proudly bigoted, and supremely potty-mouthed.
The first comment he makes as Nina Raine‘s Tribes begins is “He’s a cunt,” referring to daughter Ruth’s would-be boyfriend. A second later, told that there’s smoked roe in the pasta, he comments, “It’s like being fucked in the face by a crab.”
Who wouldn’t be seduced by such repartee?
The fact, of course, is that Christopher is a petty tyrant. Just below the surface of his picturesque bluntness beats the heart of a true bully.
And like every bully, he always hurts the ones he loves. Eldest son Daniel has been trying his damnedest to gain access to Dad’s favor by imitating him. It’s no use. The dissertation he’s writing is gibberish, says Christopher, and though Daniel can launch a solidly obscene insult (Ruth, on the cunt boyfriend: “He seemed interested in what I had to say.” Daniel: “Well, you know what they say. ‘There’s no such thing as a boring pussy'”), he lacks the stomach for sustained cruelty. The voices in his head tell him he’s no good.
Ruth, meanwhile, is rudderless, embarking on an operatic career in her mid-20s despite any indication of talent. Tellingly, the boyfriend who comes up for so much disparagement is 60 years old and an academic, just like you-know-who. Beth seems less afraid of Christopher, but still lets him tell her what to wear. Always placating and looking on the bright side, she seems to regard herself as the glue that holds the family together.
But despite the hyperverbal, gladiatorial bonhomie of Tribes‘s initial scene, it’s quickly evident that the real glue is fear. All the kids are damaged in one way or another. All of them stay at home. They’re like the nuts that Beth has gathered from her garden and put out for an appetizer: open them up and you find rot.
The situation could probably go on forever—Daniel, Ruth, and Beth being more or less broken—if not for the youngest child, Billy. Deaf since birth, he’s at once the outsider among these logorrheics and their emotional core. Christopher early on prevented Billy from learning sign language, arguing that it’s inexpressive compared to speech and would keep him out of the nonsigning mainstream. As a result he’s become an ace lip-reader. More, an expert reader of hearts.
Yet he’s always just a step behind the family conversation. Always just slightly bewildered.
Then he meets Sylvia, the hearing daughter of deaf parents—which is to say, Billy’s inverse image. She introduces him to love, signing, and other deaf people. Even finds him a job using his skill as a lip-reader. Once Billy understands what he’s been missing, all hell naturally breaks loose in Christopher’s kingdom.
Raine’s 2010 script is a generous, ultimately delicate thing. She’s much kinder to Christopher, for instance, than I’ve been here. But then my feelings about him are no doubt heavily influenced by the way he’s presented in the Steppenwolf Theatre production directed by Austin Pendleton. A friend who saw David Cromer’s version last year, at Barrow Street Theatre in New York, recalled Christopher’s viciousness being somewhat more sotto voce there. Here, it’s loose, loud, and jagged. Despite his avuncular looks, Francis Guinan doesn’t pull any punches as the paterfamilias. Which may be a mistake, since it mitigates our sense of the family’s glamour at the start, in turn making Billy’s rebellion less interesting because it’s less of a surprise.
Pendleton’s pacing and blocking are also problematic. Some passages just plain lost momentum at the performance I saw. And, sitting in the audience-left section, I found crucial moments obscured for extended periods by the placement of bodies.
That last is all the more frustrating given the fact that the bodies belong to such accomplished actors. Besides Guinan there’s Molly Regan, who wrings an incredible breadth of nuance from the various smiles she puts on as Beth. Alana Arenas has some lovely moments as Sylvia, especially in a scene where she educates the Christopher family on signing’s expressiveness (though it’s also one of those times where the blocking interferes). Steve Haggard’s Daniel is out-and-out dangerous, his eyes always giving warning of what his suffering will lead him to next. Calm and anguish fight it out in John McGinty’s Billy, suggesting the strength that makes him capable of rebellion.