Tribes is a cleverly written, witty and engaging play about a “problem.”  The surface problem involves deafness.  A young man who is deaf and a young woman who is going that way fall in love.  But more importantly it’s about in-groups, others, “us and them,” and the virtues and limitations of the human tendency to collect into — tribes.  It’s a play that’s funny, engrossing, and doesn’t make intellectual compromises.

Billy is the deaf, beloved, youngest child of Christopher, a smart, arrogant, rigid and closed-minded academic and Beth, an amused mother who in spite of her easy-going nature and sensitivity doesn’t always get it.  Daniel is a vaguely beat, mildly schizophrenic older son and Ruth is the frustrated singer daughter.  Part of the charm of the play is the intensity with which one feels this as a genuine family — with all of everybody’s issues, it still seems nice to belong, and sitting in the audience in-the-round above the beautifully lit family dinner table, one feels a part of it.  This play comes to us from the UK, and this is a British family.

And they do have plenty of issues.  Billy learned to speak vocally and is a skillful lip reader, but he has to keep reminding his family to do their speaking — and screaming at one another, often with very amusing repartee — in his direction so he can know what’s going on.  The strain’s enough to make him give up at times, and ultimately he’s drawn to Sylvia, a woman who can truly understand his communication frustrations because she’s the child of deaf parents and is herself now, in young adulthood, going deaf.  It would appear to be a match made in heaven.  She teaches him sign language, giving him a new entry into the deaf world.

The play is filled with clever and meaningful criss-cross relationships.  Billy was born deaf to hearing parents, Sylvia was born hearing to deaf parents. Billy has never heard. Sylvia is moving from fully hearing to fully deaf.  She fights deafness as a terrifying handicap that’s pulling her into its grasp.  Billy, a new enthusiast, buys into the idea that deaf is not a handicap, only different.

And while Billy, and soon Sylvia, can’t hear anything of what’s around them, Daniel, Billy’s schizophrenic older brother, is bedeviled by imaginary voices.

The course of love never runs smooth takes an original turn.  Billy embraces deafness and Sylvia; Sylvia resists deafness and Billy, or at least his enthusiasm for the deaf world.  Because having now learned sign language, after a life-time of being forced to use verbal language by his father, Billy comes to feel alienated from his talky-talky family and ultimately abandons them in favor of full identification with the deaf.   He loves the deaf social occasions.  He blooms.  And he gets a job, belying the dependency his family assumed.  Sylvia, fighting deafness all the way, hears with disgust, while she still can, the atonal monotony that’s coming into her speaking voice from diminished hearing feed-back.  She comes to detest the deaf social gatherings, “always the same people.”  Tribes — all tribes, the playwright makes clear — offer a sense of belonging; tribes are parochial and limiting..

Tribes is a stimulating play, superbly acted, with an alluring set and lighting, and perfectly paced.  No wonder its NYC run has just been extended to September!  While the story focuses on Billy’s conflicts and journey of self-discovery, all the characters are fully written and pleasurably idiosyncratic, which means, it may not be a pleasure to live with all these types but it sure is fun to watch them in theater.

Tribes plays at Barrow Streete Theatre in NYC’s West Village through September 2, 2012.

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