By Tristan Lejeune
This play needs a first gear.
Hir, performing at Woolly Mammoth until June 18, is overwrought as shit. It’s didactic and unforgiving, and if you buy the dialogue, there’s a bridge I wanna sell you. But it would all go down easier if it warmed up to the lectures and the melodrama, if it first laid down a base coat of humanity. It does not. These “characters,” who are really more stand-ins for points of view, are screaming at each other within the first five minutes.
Isaac (Joseph J. Parks), nicknamed I, because we’re going to have fun with pronouns, is returning from The War to a home that is nothing like he left it. His abusive, racist, representative-of-the-patriarchy father, Arnold (Mitch Hébert) has had a debilitating stroke, and mom Paige (Emily Townley) has taken up the opportunity to launch a multi-tiered revenge. She dresses the old bastard in a nightgown and clown makeup, and feeds him estrogen pills to keep him docile and deny him his masculinity. She’s stopped not only cooking and cleaning, but maintaining any sort of the order Arnold demanded — the place is a pigsty. It looks like a tornado struck a particularly tacky garage sale. There’s a purse in the oven; the bread box is full of gift ribbons. About the only things that really work the way they should are the blender used to make disgusting fruit-and-prescription smoothies, and the many spray bottles Paige uses on Arnold when he misbehaves or refuses to obey.
Are we having fun yet?
In addition, Isaac’s teenage sister is transitioning, taking testosterone and dreaming about joining an anarchist hippie commune. Max (Malic White) is sporting a beard and some armpit hair, which throws Isaac for one of several loops about his arrival. All well and good — and it’s encouraging that both White and playwright Taylor Mac identify as genderqueer in real life — but transgender stories don’t need to speechify at the audience nearly so much. It comes off like an after-school special with a huge chip on its shoulder.
There are a few truly decent laughs, and the acting could be worse. There could be more, and it could be better.
The every-painting-is-crooked set, designed by Misha Kachman, makes one wonder if there was anything left in Woolly Mammoth’s props department. There are ugly constructions of toilet paper rolls, stacks of dirty dishes, piles of clothes and empty boxes, as well as holiday decorations suitable for Halloween, Christmas and the 4th of July — it’s crap for all seasons. The forced joyfulness of the chaos is meant to be a feast for the eye, but it’s visual white noise. Things don’t get more compelling, however, when the slate is wiped.
Did I mention that Issac — who spent his time overseas picking up murdered body parts, in one of several metaphors ridden hard and put away wet — was dishonorably discharged for drug use? He was caught with a woman exhaling crystal meth into his rear end, which is more fitting than anything else you’ll hear all evening. The play blows a lot of smoke up its own ass.
I thought the show had lost me forever when it made its third or fourth puke-in-the-sink joke (Isaac says vomiting is what Marines in Mortuary Affairs get instead of medals in one typically subtle line). I was wrong. The show lost me forever when it literally gets out a white board to explain the pronouns ze and hir (pronounced here, and don’t think they won’t play with that, too). Transgender Americans need more representation in entertainment, but none of the profanity makes this feel any less patronizing.
Or mean. In the end, the show, directed by Shana Cooper, is vicious in its evolve-or-die mentality. I could particularly do without the line where Paige says the military is great use for the “spare parts” of society. Granted, Isaac steps way out of line, but when she tells him she’s not advising he kill himself — because she doesn’t want to clean up the mess, it’s the audience that hears a door slam in their face.
It’s worth noting that the crowd at Friday’s opening night was eating it up. I worried for a moment I might have missed the Kool-Aid round of drinks, which was impossible, because the bartenders were attentive and charming. But no, I don’t care what gender this emperor is: ze is freakin’ naked.
Woolly Mammoth takes more risks than any other D.C.-area theatre. But continuous risk means occasional failure.