Hir at the Park Theatre with Felicity Huffman – review

The revival runs at the north London venue

Felicity Huffman, © Pamela Raith

Many may come to see this production, a revival of Taylor Mac’s culture wars blitzing play, based on the casting of former Desperate Housewife (and recent inmate) Felicity Huffman. But they’ll be richly rewarded with an intriguing, knotty drama that goes far beyond the category of star vehicle, delivered by an ensemble in which Huffman’s is just one of several eye-catching performances.

Huffman plays Paige, matriarch of a fabulously unkempt home that sits appropriately enough atop a landfill site. She has dressed her once abusive husband Arnold as a clown following his recent incapacitation by a stroke and relishes ordering him around; if he shows signs of disobedience, she sprays mist in his face. Meanwhile her youngest Max has transitioned and now uses the pronouns hir (pronounced ‘here’) and ze. Together, they hold intellectual salons and embark on ‘cultural Saturdays’, trips to Paris and a gleeful obliteration of bourgeois patriarchal norms – on the wall is a vast sign reading ‘LGBTTSQQIAA’ adorned with fairylights.

But into this nest of resistance walks son Isaac, who’s spent three years clearing up body parts in a military mortuary and has been dreaming of returning to an ordered, familiar home. Suffice it to say, he’s not impressed with what he finds, and the ensuing conflict becomes about so much more than housework or gender reassignment. Mac captures the zeitgeist of a nihilistic, drug-addicted America where the notion of the nuclear family has been well and truly detonated. The characters are richly drawn, and constantly betray their inner conflicts and vulnerabilities, whether it’s Isaac vomiting at the sound of a blender, Paige playing the anarchist while still correcting her son’s diction, or Max’s fascination with military machismo.

Steven Kunis’ production grips from the start, only slowed by a protracted half hour interval (it’s elongated for a set change). The play follows a familiar narrative curve of domestic implosion, but keeps throwing up surprises (quite literally in the case of Isaac) and is laced with dark humour. Huffman nails Paige’s curious blend of activism and nihilism, while Thalía Dudek captures the spirited naivety of the teenage Max. Steffan Cennyyd is a deeply troubled yet still lovable Isaac, and Simon Startin subtly hints at the monster beneath the pitiable Arnold.

The only real drawback is that aforementioned interval, which is preceded by a scene that needlessly over-emphasises Isaac’s trauma. As impressive as this may be as a technical accomplishment (hat tip to designer Ceri Calf), it feels heavy handed. The closing tableau is much more impactful for its simplicity (aided by a wonderfully foreboding soundscape from Roly Botha), and provides a fittingly brooding end to a thoroughly thought-provoking evening.