R.I.P. the American family.
That might be a useful epitaph for “Hir,” a bristling social comedy by Taylor Mac that regales us with the story of the end of whatever it was that made America great. An acrid, unforgiving play, receiving a pungently impeccable regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, “Hir” is in many ways a throwback to the desiccated universe of another national Cassandra, Sam Shepard, who in plays like “Buried Child” and “Curse of the Starving Class” went to the American moral cupboard and found it bare.
Still, Mac — a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year for a sprawling work, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” that took 24 hours to tell — has a voice and comic style all his own. And in “Hir” (pronounced HERE), he adds his gifts memorably to the tradition of the American household play, with a family suffering from what feels like every possible permutation of pain.
We’ve landed in the shabby Central California house of Arnold (Mitch Hébert) and Paige (Emily Townley), the cheap “starter home” of plywood and cement they’ve never managed to escape. Paige’s preoccupations run to humiliating Arnold, once a wife beater and now an aphasic stroke victim, by dressing him in clown makeup and ladies’ nighties. Into the ghastly clutter in which they coexist — the house, built on a landfill, is now itself, courtesy of set designer Misha Kachman, a glorious dump — arrives their broken older son Isaac (Joseph J. Parks). “I” is a dishonorably discharged Marine back from a war where his job in mortuary services involved collecting the blown-apart remains of his comrades.
Paige in particular is an inspired satirical creation, and Townley plays her with the flattening force of an out-of-control steamroller: Imagine Rosie O’Donnell trying to dig her way out of a sweltering suburban prison. The play’s title, though, is a reference to its fourth character, Max (Malic White), who’s gender-transitioning to boyhood and insists on being referred to by new neutral pronouns: “ze” for he or she; “hir” for his or her.
One of the pleasures of “Hir” is that absolutely nothing is sacred. Whether it’s Isaac’s PTSD or Arnold’s infirmity or Paige’s sad efforts to find herself or even Max’s struggle to claim a new identity, Mac’s nihilistic perspective reminds you that all in this landscape of eternal sunshine is just a groping in the dark. In a larger sense, it’s a whole country that’s gotten lost in the clutter, a chaotic mess of a place where an ethos of rugged individualism has degenerated into abuse and selfishness. There’s so little civility left in this intemperate domain that even the wasteful air conditioning is a battleground: An extended sequence has Paige and Isaac standing on a dirty couch to reach an even filthier cooling unit, as they fight ridiculously over the on-off button.
Director Shana Cooper, who gave such a satisfyingly sinister aura to Woolly Mammoth’s creepy “The Nether,” accomplishes with “Hir” another smart variation on the sordid. The staging, in particular, of the drag shadow-play the family puts on for Isaac conveys keenly the distorted role-playing that substitutes here for the bedrock comforts of home, such as dependability and love.
From his performance earlier this season as Roy Cohn in a masterly revival of “Angels in America,” Hébert could not pivot more commendably as Arnold. The hot-air balloon of what is now referred to as white male privilege comes plummeting to earth in the pitiful visage of a once-vigorous breadwinner trotted around like a garish puppet. Parks, too, is a valuable asset as wired Isaac, who’s left so damaged by the noise of war that the sound of a blender causes him to vomit.
The comedy of cruelty has its payoffs when it’s played with the kind of corrosive elan exhibited on the Woolly stage. (Ivania Stack’s costumes, particularly in that shadow play, expertly underline the story’s romance with vulgarity.) But “Hir” does have its poignant aspects, too, and the most important of these is embodied by White, whose transgender character does, amid all the emotional carnage, represent a step forward. For maybe, just maybe, this black comedy intentionally overstates the magnitude of society’s illness. And the fact that many of us can still laugh at America’s flaws means we all still may be capable of transition.
Hir, by Taylor Mac. Directed by Shana Cooper. Set, Misha Kachman; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound and music, James Bigbee Garver; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; production stage manager, John Keith Hall. About 2 hours. Tickets, $35-$69. Through June 18 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.