Something is in the water on Barrow Street and when David Cromer drinks it, phenomenal theater happens. Tribes opened on March 4 this year, but shows no signs of aging. If its presence has escaped your awareness up to this point, as it had for this reviewer, then you have a treat in store for you. This is one of those ever-so-rare, all-around powerful pieces where a stellar cast, brilliant directing, commanding script, and beautiful design all work together to make for a theatrical experience that is likely to stay with you for years to come, continuing to outshine more trivial diversions.
David Cromer proves once again that he is one of the most promising directors in the American Theatre with the living, breathing work that has been brought to fruition on this stage. Under his steady hand, these aren't characters, they are people. They are not acting on a stage as much as they are living in a home. His abilities are undeniable.
At the center of this creation is playwright Nina Raine, who is a worthy recipient of the Charles Wintour Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. Raine has a natural flow with dialogue and captures this family in a candid portrait, free of an overbearing message and yet rich with the truths and ambiguities that are recognizable in real life. The combination of her writing with Cromer's directing is a very happy marriage that has resulted in a wonderfully dysfunctional family.
This is a stunning performance by an ensemble cast, forming a very likeable and complicated family, all of whom are hearing impaired, though only two characters are actually deaf. Will Brill and Russell Harvard, the two remaining original cast members, both give outstanding performances as the star-crossed brothers. Brill radiates through his misery, embracing the off-putting qualities of Daniel while allowing his difficult-to-articulate inner good to peek out in select and well-placed moments. Harvard rides the dramatic arc of Billy with ease and power, beginning with a loveable patience that slowly sours into an understandable resentment which in turn festers with overzealous before returning to a dissonant sonata of the first movement, all executed brilliantly.
Susannah Flood offers a calming component in the eye of this family storm while also being a catalyst for the tempest as Billy's new girlfriend, Sylvia, exuding reason, vulnerability and beauty. Jeff Still reigns in his blind kingdom as Christopher, that bearded, liberal father who is likely to engage you in a debate you didn't ask for. Lee Roy Rogers offers a steady and maternal presence as Christopher's somewhat resigned queen, and Dina Thomas makes a strong Off-Broadway debut in the role of the frustrated Ruth, whose self-delusion is palpable as well as the ensuing devastation that comes with its unraveling.
Plays like Tribes and its current production are the proof that theater is still a legitimate art form; they provide an excellent incentive to encourage an avid theatergoer to continue searching for those diamonds in the rough. If you see only one play this holiday season, this should be the one. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Barrow Street Theatre is at 27 Barrow St. in Manhattan.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.