BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
An absorbing new drama about a young, deaf man dealing with his noisy family -- all of whom hear but none of whom really listen to anybody – “Tribes” premiered on Sunday at the Barrow Street Theatre.
A critical success in London, Nina Raine’s new play benefits here from an intimate, beautifully performed production that is sensitively staged by David Cromer, whose notable revival of “Our Town” ran for 18 months at the Barrow Street Theatre.
The 199-seat space has been arranged into a cozy arena where the British tribe in question argues and talks over each other around a long dining room table.
The relatively quiet one among this bickering bunch is Billy, who was born deaf and learned to read lips and speak because his parents felt that teaching Billy sign language could reduce him to a second-class being who would limit his life strictly to the deaf community.
Then Billy meets and falls in love with Sylvia, a woman who gradually is losing her hearing. While Billy’s obstreperous relatives welcome Sylvia into their self-involved midst, her loving influence causes Billy to seriously question the way he was reared, which drives a wedge with his family.
Later developments involving Billy’s employment as a lip-reading expert for the police and the mental disintegration of his brother Daniel – who hears voices in his head – are not as compelling as the main story, but Raine’s characters are depicted believably as multi-layered people. Nobody is a saint and everybody suffers their frustrations.
Although some of the two-act play is overwritten, with too many obvious remarks about “feelings you cannot put into words” and “language is worthless,” Raine provides a thoughtful, at times provocative, study in communication and understanding.