The opening tableau of Taylor Mac’s Hir gives you a sense of how the play will proceed: the curtain (in a multicolor print that feels like it’s been lifted from a lower-end chain hotel circa 1982) opens on a hyper-realistic domestic interior, one that’s both decorated with excess and in utter disarray. Streamers of rainbow foil drape windows and arches; cabinetry and walls are covered in a riot of rainbow stickers; multicolored afghans drape over surfaces; and there’s a weird cat’s-cradle arrangement of strings running across the ceiling. Also, clothes are piled everywhere; a pile of stuff blocks the house’s front door; all the beat-up furniture is strewn haphazardly across the kitchen and living room spaces. It looks like both a craft store and a Salvation Army have exploded into the house. In the middle of this chaos stands a tall, middle-aged man wearing a roomy purple dress, badly applied makeup, and a giant clown wig. Then someone tries to open the blocked front door.
It’s Isaac (whose family calls him “I”). He has spent three years in the Marines’ mortuary corps, but he’s now been dishonorably discharged for methamphetamine use and returns to a family that bears almost no resemblance to the one he left, or the one depicted in his mother’s letters. Paige had mentioned that his father, Arnold, had a minor stroke recently, but in fact it was a major stroke, some time ago, and this formerly controlling, racist (he lost his job as a plumber for his rants to customers), and violent patriarch has been reduced to a barely verbal, partially paralyzed incontinent shell. The degeneration of the domestic environment is entirely intentional, Paige’s way of tormenting her formerly abusive husband and his compulsion for order. And I’s younger sister is, as Paige says, “A brother now. No! Not a brother. You have a something….Max is no longer a she or a he. So you call Max, ze. You must use ze instead of the pronouns he or she and you must use the pronoun hir, H.I.R., in place of the pronouns her or him.” Max is taking testosterone purchased on the internet and is being home-schooled by Paige (though, as Max says, “She’s not homeschooling me, I’m homeschooling her, and it’s fucking exhausting”) while dreaming of running away to an anarchist queer commune. Paige, who’s reveling in her freedom from Arnold’s rules, has embraced the “alphabet of genders” alongside her renunciation of cupboards and laundry.
The very conventionality of the box Mac has packed them in feels like a provocation, a trigger for the events that are about to occur—and it’s a credit to Mac (and to Kristine Nielsen’s Paige) that despite the currents of rage swirling through the family, the play is still frequently hilarious. At the same time, the absurdity feels spread over a hollow core; once you take away the surface layer of chaos—as I does almost immediately, cleaning up and restoring the house to the state it was in when he left in an attempt to exert some control over the situation—and the fictions Max and Paige have created to sustain themselves, there’s not much left. The characters seem mostly built of their tics (I vomits frequently; Arnold grunts and mumbles; Paige chatters compulsively).
To be sure, that hollowness is part of what the play is about—a savage look at the failure of this kind of working-class, suburban American family and the models of masculinity at its core—but still feels thin.
Arnold was a failure even before he lost his job; he bought his family a shoddy “starter home” built over landfill, but never got past that starting line. I couldn’t afford college, couldn’t get a job, and then tried and failed in the Marine Corps, that quintessential bastion of malehood. And even Max, who’s stepping way from binary gender but also writing off anything hir father and brother have done, doesn’t have anything to replace it with; hir desire to run away to a commune is just as flawed, a cloistered fantasy that’s more about escape from the world than existence in it. Both Max and I want a place to belong—and I’s clinging to the vision of “home” in the term “starter home” is just as fictional as Max’s anarchist utopian dreamworld.
Mac calls the genre of this play Absurd Realism, and says “that the absurdity comes from a heightened but realistic point of view. Absurd Realism is simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.” It’s a tough line to walk, especially in a tightly focused domestic plot, and requires an enormous amount of tonal control from the director and the actors—and that’s not consistently achieved here. The always remarkable Kristine Nielsen is the only one who seems to have mastered the demands of the genre; Paige is a whirlwind of verbal diarrhea that mixes semi-enlightened enthusiasm with gleeful viciousness, but Nielsen still gives her a steely core, a line that cannot be crossed. There’s a struggle for self going on at the heart of Paige that’s harder to see in the other actors (Daniel Oreskes as Arnold, Cameron Scoggins as Isaac, and Tom Phelan as Max), or in Niegel Smith’s direction. All three seem a little too stylized in their physicality and scattershot in their acting choices.
The curdling ambiguities and unexpressed selves at the heart of this American nuclear family (which is almost going nuclear) are really the play’s subject as much as the gender issue foregrounded in its title. There’s something evocative in those ambiguities: the way the word “hir” (pronounced “here”) functions both as gender(less) third-person pronoun and as the sense of place Isaac so desperately seeks (and perhaps also in the way “I” functions as both first-person pronoun and name—calling someone else “I” resonates), but it’s not enough to hang the play on. Hir may be worth seeing for Nielsen alone, but the rest of it feels not entirely certain of who it’s for—or who it’s about.