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Hir at the Park Theatre review: Felicity Huffman is brilliantly, bitterly comic in this OTT study of identity

Felicity Huffman in Hir at the Park Theatre (Pamela Reith)
Felicity Huffman in Hir at the Park Theatre (Pamela Reith)

Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman gives a forceful, bitterly comic performance as Paige – matriarch of an American family that really puts the fun in “dysfunctional” – in Taylor Mac’s OTT study of identity. Hir (pronounced here) is the preferred pronoun of Paige’s younger child Max (Thalía Dudek) who is transitioning into a gay man.

Max’s brother Isaac (Steffan Cennydd) has been dishonourably discharged from the Marines with a vomitous form of PTSD and their controlling father Arnold (Simon Startin) has had a severe stroke. Paige repays her husband’s past abuse by infantilising and feminising him, and letting the house go to rack and ruin. The blender and the air-conditioner become weapons.

Though the play is partly about gender fluidity and the comic attempts of both young and older generations to keep up with the terminology, it’s also about wider realms of belonging. Mac – a multi-hyphenate, multi-award-winning American artist whose own preferred pronoun is ‘judy’ – calls the play a piece of “absurd realism” and throws everything at it including the kitchen sink.

The domestic setup is a metaphor for America, possibly the wider Western world. The family never got beyond a “starter home”, built on landfill and made of plasterboard (and rendered here in frankly disgusting detail by designer Ceci Calf). “Mediocre straight white man” Arnold liked beer, whisky, fried chicken and porn. He thought respect and advancement were his birthright but lost his plumbing job to an Asian woman, then his authority in the family.

Simon Startin, Felicity Huffman and Steffan Cennydd in Hir (Pamela Reith)
Simon Startin, Felicity Huffman and Steffan Cennydd in Hir (Pamela Reith)

Isaac, having flunked out of his alternative forces family, may represent a different form of masculinity or just the reassertion of the old patriarchy. The potential futures envisaged by Paige and Max are vague pipe dreams. The predominant sense is of a world spiralling out of control as the house itself slips into entropy.

Meanwhile Mac and director Steven Kunis pile on the japes. There’s an excruciating banjo solo, a shadow puppet show, and discussions on whether Noah’s Arc was homophobic and the Mona Lisa transgender. The arch, studied madness becomes overwhelming.

It’s bizarre to see a screen luminary like Huffman, who won an Oscar playing a transgender woman in Transamerica in 2005, close up in a 200-seat venue in Finsbury Park, even if younger audience members might now know her better for her part in a 2019 US college admissions scandal, for which she served nine days in prison. But her decades of theatre work, particularly with David Mamet, shine through.

Her Paige exudes a kind of bleak glee at the implosion of her world but her language is always intricate, precise and sharp. Her explanation of how everyone in the world is trans, black and gay is a particular delight. Without her, the show would be hard to swallow.

Park Theatre, to March 16; buy tickets here