“I shouldn’t have to learn new pronouns!” Dave Chapelle said in a Netflix special posted earlier this year. He was lamenting the difficulty—particularly for a guy over 40 who voluntarily withdrew from participation in media and culture over the last decade—of keeping current with the fast-evolving language of the LGBTQ movement, and that the innocent use of a no-longer-favored term might be mistaken for disapproval or aggression. Chapelle earned some rebukes for saying this.
I kept thinking about Chapelle’s remark while sorting through my reaction to Hir, a blisteringly funny but unrelentingly sour 2014 “kitchen-sink tragedy” by Taylor Mac, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose wild resume includes a 24-hour, 246-song concert recapping the history of popular music since 1776.
Hir is now enjoying a rich and fervent production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, anchored by two of Woolly’s reliably brilliant company members, Emily Townley and Mitch Hébert. That title, pronounced “here,” is indeed a new pronoun, one that the teenage or early-twenties Max (Chicago-based “gender warrior” Malic White) has asked hir family to use while ze (another new pronoun) is transitioning genders. This causes some Chapelle-style consternation for Max’s brother Isaac (Woolly first-timer Joseph J. Parks), who has just returned to his shambolic family home after a combat tour. Set designer Misha Kachman makes the place look like a laundromat after an earthquake.
Seeking solace in meth has gotten Isaac dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps, where he spent the prior three years picking up corpses and body parts. He hopes the comforts of home might allow him to collect himself. Instead, he learns that his mother, Paige (Townley), has unshackled herself from housekeeping, budget-keeping, and schedule-keeping in the time since his spouse-abusing father, Arnold (Hébert), suffered a crippling stroke. Now Paige takes hour-by-hour revenge on her newly-neutered husband, dressing him in a nightgown and clown makeup and slipping her own after-market additives into the nutrition shakes Arnold’s doctors have prescribed. A Long Day’s Journey into Night is a Winter Solstice Jaunt into Perpetual Daylight compared to this.
Mac, a playwright, actor, singer, songwriter, and director, surely wouldn’t like to be reduced to the phrase drag performer; this is an artist, after all, who once responded to a journalist’s attempt to peg him by writing and performing a show called Comparison Is Violence. I identify Mac that way only to make the point that the perspective on LGBTQ matters presented, uh, here is not that of an outsider. He even mocks the movement’s ever-evolving rules of grammar and usage in Hir by adding another half-dozen letters to that already-unwieldy abbreviation. Imagine my surprise at discovering that Chapelle and Mac—two artists who’ve built careers on skewering prejudice, be it racial or economic or heteronormative—were born on the same day in 1973.
Mac, by the way, prefers to be identified by the pronoun judy. I hope Mac will forgive me for using two male pronouns to refer to judy in the prior paragraph. You can understand how some bewilderment might arise absent any unkind intentions. That the Hir program given out on press night included an insert with a four-paragraph apology from Woolly honcho Howard Shalwitz for accidentally “deadnaming” Caitlyn Jenner only proves the point that even the wokest of middle-aged white guys are prone to error in this area.
Anyway, Mac judyself is not too pious to mine comedy from the limitations imposed by a gender-bifurcated language. Max-not-Mac opines that the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark is transphobic because Noah chose only binary-mating species to bring aboard—overlooking, for example, snakes, which copulate in a multi-participant scrum.
But Hir’s mirth-without-mercy comes from behavior rather than jokes. Townley squirts Hébert’s doddering Arnold with a spray bottle whenever she wants him to settle down. She manages somehow to project vulnerability and cruelty, continuing a great run of not-especially-likeable characters at Woolly over the years. (Her scabrous turn as a Palinesque Nebraska gubernatorial candidate in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians three summers ago comes to mind.)
That we’re given only hints of the mistreatment Paige suffered at Arnold’s hands over the years but remain unable to condemn her mistreatment of a helpless man completely is a credit to Townley’s base relatability. We learn that, before he fell ill, Arnold lost his job—to a woman. A woman of color. The erosion of the American middle class, festering sexism and racism, and our perennial mistreatment of veterans are the fertile soil from whence Mac’s deeply contemporary dysfunctional family play springs.
Hébert was as much at ease playing the malicious blowhard Roy Cohn in Round House and Olney Theatres’ joint Angels in America last fall as he was playing a quiet laborer in Woolly’s 2010 Clybourne Park, a year before that play won a Pulitzer Prize. In Arnold, he plays a man whose speech has become infrequent and severely impaired. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch him. If White and Parks are not quite on the same rarefied plane as their world-beating castmates, they’re still awfully good. You’ll believe them as an unhappy family, unhappy in its own way.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to June 18. 641 D St. NW. $20-$69. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.