NEW YORK — A family dinner in the beginning of Nina Raine's "Tribes" tells the audience all it needs to know about the crisis of understanding that plagues the characters in this bright and boldly provocative drama.
Two parents and three twenty-something children sit around a table, sipping wine, talking more than listening. The conversation is a rhapsody of jabs, with speakers vying to be heard, promoting viewpoints, exchanging insults and generally refusing to give ground.
One of the adult children is conspicuously silent — watching intently, listening with his eyes, occasionally interrupting the torrent of words to ask for a recap of what had been said.
These interruptions are the only moments in which the others seem to notice him.
Most of the action in this superbly acted and well-directed play, which opened Sunday at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre, takes place in the home of this intellectual, fiercely argumentative English family.
Billy (Russell Harvard) has been deaf since birth, but never learned sign language because he has been sheltered by relatives who refuse to accommodate or accept his deafness for various reasons.
The primary influence on this apparent indifference is Billy's domineering father, Christopher (Jeff Perry), a writer and academic who doggedly insists that Billy should be treated exactly like anyone else.
"Making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end," posits Christopher, whose nasty disposition is tempered only by his more sensitive, conscientious wife, Beth (Mare Winningham) — also a writer.
The family's unwillingness to account for Billy's deafness has forced him to instead adapt to them by reading lips. But a lip-reader's full comprehension often requires a certain awareness and participation by the speaker, which Billy isn't always afforded, leaving him perpetually relegated to the outskirts of the family dialogue.
His siblings are sympathetic but generally self-consumed.
Ruth (Gayle Rankin), an aspiring opera singer, longs for romance and an ever-elusive purpose in life.
She is constantly undercut by her discontented, underachieving brother Daniel (Will Brill), who describes opera as "a bunch of people listening to something they don't understand and feeling vaguely emotional and pleased with themselves."
"It's a bit like being drunk," he says.
Daniel's assessment of opera could just as easily apply to the contentious conversations that circulate this lively but troubled household.
"Tribes" made its world premiere in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, earning an Olivier Award nomination for best play.
Under the direction of David Cromer — best known for his critically acclaimed off-Broadway production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" — the family's adversarial form of communication is performed with natural intimacy and chemistry befitting of people who have spent years at each other's throats.
The talented cast is led by Harvard's powerful and engaging performance in the lead role.
Billy's outlook changes dramatically when he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), who is suffering the early stages of adult-onset deafness. Sylvia already knows sign language because she was raised by deaf parents.
Sylvia, with her liberal upbringing, presents an obvious contrast to Billy, although we never meet her parents, so we can't make firsthand comparisons between families.
But seeing Sylvia only within the context of Billy's life makes sense in this story because her character's critical importance is as an interloper in the well-insulated cocoon of Billy's family.
In addition to a thorough examination of a loving but dysfunctional family, "Tribes" also delves into the politics and psychology of being deaf, going deaf and the deaf community's place in greater society.
Raine covers a lot of ground, so much at times that her script loses conciseness. But what makes this piece so compelling is the strikingly real family at its core and all the communicational divides they face — some auditory, others not.
These divides are bridged in a variety of ways throughout the play, including sign language, verbal translations of sign, crude pantomime and even raised voices.
The struggle to hear and be heard proves a painful endeavor for all the characters. Ultimately, some of their greatest triumphs of understanding occur, ironically enough, without resorting to language at all.