'Hir': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Kristine Nielsen and Tom Phelan in 'Hir'
Despite a hilarious performance by farce veteran Kristine Nielsen, this would-be subversive play is mainly just grotesque.

Kristine Nielsen stars in this dark dysfunctional family comedy by playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac, written in a style he describes as "absurd realism."

That Taylor Mac's new play Hir deals with a nuclear family symbolically blown to kingdom come is immediately apparent when the curtain rises. Depicting a tract home in suburban California, the stunning assemblage of detritus on display in designer David Zinn's set resembles an unholy union between a thrift shop and a novelty store. The arresting image provides a fair indication of the chaos to ensue in this work described by the playwright as "absurd realism."

As the play begins, Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) has just returned from a three-year overseas stint as a Marine, where he worked in "Mortuary Affairs."

"I pick up guts. Exploded guts," he explains.

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But that harrowing stint hasn't prepared him for what he finds when he gets home. His father, Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), is a monosyllabic stroke victim clad in a flimsy nightgown and wearing clown makeup and wig. He is forced by Isaac's mother, Paige (Kristine Nielsen), to sleep in a cardboard box, as her revenge for years of domestic abuse.

Isaac's sister, Maxine, is now the transgender Max (Tom Phelan), sporting scruffy facial hair and demanding to be called "ze" in place of the pronouns he or she, and "hir" instead of her or him. He insists that the Mona Lisa is transgender, rejects the story of Noah and the Ark as "transphoboic" and proudly describes himself as "trans-masculine." 

Isaac, who was dishonorably discharged from the military for a particularly exotic form of drug use, is horrified by what he sees. His main reaction is to throw up repeatedly in the sink, with Paige gleefully urging him on by turning on a blender to which he has a Pavlovian response.

Once the bizarre situation has been established, the play has nowhere much to go except to repeat itself, although a neat visual twist at the start of the second act, showing the results of Isaac having taken charge of the household, is nearly as much fun as the opening image.

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Mac, an Obie-winning playwright and performance artist (The Lily's Revenge) who informs us in his program bio that his gender pronoun is "judy," clearly has serious things on his mind here, including gender and feminist issues. And his anarchic take on the kitchen-sink family drama, although hardly revelatory (Jules Feiffer, for one, did it decades ago, and better, in such works as Little Murders), provides some amusement.

But the thematic points quickly become repetitious. The recurring bit involving Isaac's retching is funny for roughly the first half-dozen times before becoming tedious. And such physical gags as he and his mother angrily switching an air-conditioning unit on and off and the family staging an obscene shadow-puppet play are run into the ground. Director Niegel Smith lets the pace drag considerably, despite the play's running time of under two hours.

On the other hand, there's Nielsen. The veteran actress has considerable experience with farce, with acclaimed turns to her credit in Christopher Durang plays like Betty's Summer Vacation and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. She's consistently hilarious here, mining every visual and verbal gag for more than it's worth. And when the play turns considerably darker at its conclusion, she chillingly conveys her character's bleak emptiness. Nielsen's sterling performance, and the fine work by the rest of the ensemble, nearly make up for the play's hollow posturing.

Cast: Kristine Nielsen, Daniel Oreskes, Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan
Playwright: Taylor Mac
Director: Niegel Smith
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting designer: Mike Inwood
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Playwrights Horizons