The Connor family is like any other middle class American family, except that Father Arnold is catatonic, and wearing a clown wig, makeup and a diaper; Mother Paige is morally opposed to cleaning their Prairie-style starter house, which is piled high with junk; their son Isaac is a dishonorably charged, drug addicted Marine veteran fighting post-traumatic stress syndrome; and their daughter Maxine has become their second son Max, and insists on being referred to as hir (pronounced “here”) — which is neither him nor her, but a third gender pronoun. That’s the family of “Hir,” Taylor Mac’s absurd, antic, dark, affecting, and very funny family drama, which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons.
Mac, the gender-bending, formidably protean downtown theater artist, tells us that “Hir” is a new genre of play he calls Absurd Realism, defining this as “simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.” But “Hir” is only simple on the surface — Mac’s bid to write a conventional family drama in an unconventional way. It’s rich in allusion, layered with meaning, aesthetically and politically sly, and pervasively weird. If it’s unsettling, it’s not because of its weirdness, but because of Mac’s precise and accurate insights into each member of the family.
The play begins with Isaac (an athletic looking Cameron Scoggins with a military haircut), having returned from the Middle East, unable to open the front door because it’s blocked by junk. Once he gets in the kitchen, he’s shocked and upset by what has happened to the house. (Bravo to set designer David Zinn)
“That’s a fire hazard Mom,” he says.
“Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful,” Paige answers. Kristine Nielsen plays Paige. As she demonstrated so well in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Nielsen is both an over-the-top comedienne and a deeply touching actress, going from one to the other at will – and certainly gets that opportunity in “Hir.”
Paige, we soon learn, is rebelling against her husband Arnold, who has had a debilitating stroke, but was previously an angry abusive household tyrant. (He is portrayed by the unenvied Daniel Oreskes, who mostly stares vacantly, occasionally grunting.) Part of her rebellion is to keep the air conditioner on so high that Arnold shivers. Another way to assert her newfound power is to keep the place as messy as possible. And, one suspects, her rebellion extends to her embracing the sex change of Max. Max is portrayed by transgender teen actor Tom Phelan, who previously performed on the TV series The Fosters. It might be a comment on the times that it’s something of a political act for director Niegel Smith to cast a transgender actor as a transgender character. I suspect that Mac’s decision to name the play “Hir,” but not to focus it on the Max character was also a political act – as if to communicate that the transgendered are just another member of the family like anybody else.
Paige (and Mac) has a lot of fun with Max’s transition. “Max, come in here and explain your ambiguity to your brother.” On the refrigerator door, in colorful magnets, Paige has put up a lesson in gender politics and nomenclature, including the fact that “there are no longer two genders. No longer simply a Y and X chromosome but an alphabet of genders. They call it the LGBTTSQQIAA community” – which she pronounces: Lugabuttsqueehah
But Max turns out to be a typically eager, well-meaning and confused adolescent. In a quiet moment, Max and big brother Isaac talk between themselves:
Max: I don’t have friends. I mean I do, kinda, but, can you count people you’ve never met in person as friends? I mean, I guess I think you can but people should be confronted with physicality as ritual before-
Isaac: You should have friends. Actual friends.
Max: It’s not that easy.
Isaac: Find a stranger, ask a question, listen to the
answer, then ask a follow-up question.
Max: That’s a really problematic way of reducing the
In one way, yes, this is simple, but the natural warmth between the two siblings feels so real that it’s deeply touching.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged
Written by Taylor Mac
Directed by Niegel Smith
Scenic Design David Zinn
Costume Design Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design Mike Inwood
Sound Design Fitz Patton
Production Stage Manager Stephen Milosevich
Cast: Kristine Nielsen – Paige
Daniel Oreskes – Arnold
Tom Phelan – Max
Cameron Scoggins – Isaac
Hir has been extended through December 20, 2015
Update: Hir has been extended for the third and final time through January 3, 2016.