October 18, 2018

Comedy-drama ‘Tribes’ communicates dysfunction of British-Jewish family

The tribes in Nina Raine’s comedy-drama “Tribes,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, are Jewish, literati and deaf — all as perceived through the lens of one garrulous, even antagonistic British-Jewish family.

The patriarch of this argumentative clan is Christopher, an elitist, politically incorrect academic and writer who not only rejects his membership in the Jewish tribe but also attacks what he perceives to be conformity of any kind. He is thus appalled when his youngest son, Billy, who was born deaf but is expected to read lips, brings home a new girlfriend, Sylvia, who is going deaf and who is introducing Billy to sign language as well as to members of London’s deaf community. Christopher retorts that the deaf community is a cult “founded on exclusivity,” that the deaf are “the f—–g Muslims of the handicapped world,” and that making one’s handicap the center of one’s personality is ludicrous.

Adding to the raucous discourse are Christopher’s wife, Beth; his oldest son, Daniel, who suffers from auditory hallucinations; and his daughter, Ruth, a wannabe opera singer, as power dynamics in the family shift over the course of the play.

Speaking by phone from London, where she was directing William Boyd’s new play, “Longing,” Raines said “Tribes” is as much about what it means to be a member of a tribe as it is about how we hear each other, literally and figuratively.

Her own family tribe, like the one in the play, is verbal, cerebral and at times quarrelsome. Her father is Craig Raine, the famously acerbic British poet and academic; he is not Jewish, while Raine’s mother, Ann Pasternak Slater, is an academic who has taught Shakespeare at Oxford, and hails from a Jewish family — her mother left the Soviet Union to study medicine in Germany, then fled the Nazis to England.

“Some of my cousins are very observant and keep kosher, and some are completely lax, but they all have a slightly sarcastic opinion of each other,” said Raine, who is in her mid-30s and was alternately breezy and thoughtful during the course of a conversation.  She noted that the fictional Christopher has no patience for a cousin who has become observant after marrying an Orthodox woman: “[Can’t his parents] just tease him out of being kosher?” he says.

Raine’s immediate family was hardly kosher: “We didn’t learn Hebrew, and we eat ham, but my mother felt like after the Holocaust you should be proud to be Jewish, and she named my brothers Moses and Isaac as if to say, ‘This is our heritage,’ ” she said. “And I don’t feel completely English, because I feel so connected to my family’s refugee history.”

Raine was one of only two Jewish students at her all-girls high school in London, during teenage years when “you’re quite vulnerable to feeling like you want to belong to something,” she said. She found that sense of belonging, in part, by attending synagogue and Shabbat dinners with her Jewish cousins, a practice she continues to this day.

“I also enjoy that game of figuring out whether people are Jewish or not,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s something I love to do, even though my boyfriend, who is not Jewish, just doesn’t understand why that is interesting at all.”

“Tribes” began several years ago, when Raine chanced to watch a documentary about expecting deaf parents who were elated to learn that their baby would be born deaf. “I was startled,” she said, “but then I thought that if I were to have a baby, and it turned out to have my nose and my blue eyes, it would delight me. There’s a kind of joy in putting an image of yourself out there in the world, of furthering your tribe, your family tree.

“Then I started looking around, and tribes seemed to be everywhere,” she said. During a visit to New York, Raine was fascinated by the Chasidim she saw walking the streets of Williamsburg, “who all wore a sort of uniform, like an extended family.”

“I realized that in the deaf community, everyone has opinions about whether you’re being deaf in the best way possible, a bit like I imagine if you decide to become an observant Jew, people are going to have opinions about how ‘kosher’ you are. It’s like intellectuals talking about other intellectuals, or even family members arguing with each other.”

It was Raine’s family that ushered her into the tribe of the theater; when she was 11, her parents took her to the opening night of the opera “The Electrification of the Soviet Union,” for which her father had written the libretto. “I remember meeting the director and wearing a pretty dress, staying up late and being allowed to have a bit of champagne,” she recalled. “I was quite young, and I found all that [glittering] stuff very cool and exciting.”

Raine began writing plays while studying at Oxford; when she couldn’t find a theater to produce her edgy 2006 play, “Rabbit,” she opted to direct it herself in a tiny theater above the Old Red Lion theater pub in the Islington section of London. She was rewarded for her efforts with good reviews and the Evening Standard Award — which came with 30,000 pounds — for most promising new playwright. Her play “Tiger Country,” which delves into the psyches of young doctors at a busy London hospital, also opened to good reviews in 2011.

It is Raine’s parents who have been among her harshest critics: “My mother can’t lie, so she’s crap at sugaring the pill,” Raine said. “But she never says things to deliberately hurt you, which actually is the most gutting thing. And my father is a brilliant editor, so he’s used to taking out his red pen.” 

Raine admits to bringing a bit of her father to the fictional Christopher, but she disagrees with viewers who have perceived the character as monstrous. “Christopher loves his family, but he also worships the individual, and he would never assimilate into any kind of group,” she explained. “And he’s just a complete contrarian — to the point where if someone told him it was inappropriate to wear a colorful waistcoat to a funeral, he would say, ‘F–k it,’ and wear it all the same.”

Jeff Still, who plays Christopher, has even encountered viewers who have congratulated him for convincingly portraying “such an ass—-, in their words,” he said. “They think they’re being complimentary, but I see Christopher differently. He is above all a family man but he has his flaws.  He wants to be the star attraction in the room; he’s going to speak and he wants you to hear what he has to say, and he’s used to being right.”

Raine spent several months visiting hospitals in London to research “Tiger Country”; for “Tribes,” which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, she not only interviewed members of the city’s deaf community, but also attempted to learn sign language — an endeavor she found daunting. “I felt stupid, slow, uncomprehending,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Is this what it might be like to be a deaf person trying to follow a rapid spoken conversation?’ ”

In “Tribes,” she said, deafness becomes a metaphor: “It’s about communication, and what it means emotionally when we hear.”

For tickets and information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.