Hir: Felicity Huffman is a force of nature in her post-jail comeback

Felicity Huffman
Felicity Huffman - PAMELA RAITH

Most Hollywood celebrities who do theatre in London choose the lucrative high glitz of the West End. Felicity Huffman, best known for starring in the TV series Desperate Housewives, has chosen the 200-seater Park for her comeback, and with this bravura performance, effortlessly shrugs off her 2019 11-day prison stint for bribing a college admissions official to improve her daughter’s scores. In Taylor Mac’s wild satire of contemporary America she plays a housewife, not so much desperate as gleefully unhinged.

The deranged realism of Mac’s play is, initially a huge theatrical thrill in Stephen Kunis’s well-tooled revival. We’re in a California “starter home” built from plywood and glue on top of a landfill (the play is nothing if not metaphoric) where domestic order has ceded to a sort of demented fairground aesthetic following the departure three years ago of returning son Isaac to the war in Afghanistan and the debilitating stroke of Paige’s tyrannical abusive husband Arthur (Simon Startin), who never got over losing his plumbing job to a Chinese-American woman. Paige refuses to launder or clean, serves Arthur a daily cocktail of pills in a blender and dresses him in a clown’s outfit replete with painted red nose. Huffman’s febrile yet exacting performance, however, makes very clear the extent to which this feverishly playful mayhem is fuelled by a vengeful fury at the old white patriarchal order, itself bitterly collapsing in the wake of feminism, multiculturalism and trans rights, and no more powerfully expressed than in the semi immobile, verbally-stunted Arthur who at one point wees himself in the corner.

Mac’s play is as unstable as the household it depicts. It boldly refuses to pussy foot around Max’s trans identity – “the more your beard grows the more literal you get,” Paige tells her rant-happy child in one of the many zingers that litter the text. At the same time it honours Max’s non-binary status as part and parcel of a modern America in a moment of seismic upheaval. If Arthur resembles the now impotent, fried chicken-and-porn-loving masculinity of old, then Steffan Cennydd’s well-intentioned PTSD-afflicted Isaac, who spent his time in Afghanistan dreaming of home (which shares the same pronunciation of Max’s preferred pronoun Hir), finds himself caught between his profound love for his sibling and his institutionalised faith in white picket fence-style conformity. As for Paige and Max (excellently played by Thalia Dudek), well, the play resists delineating precisely what it is they represent beyond their abstract conviction in the power of revolutionary change.

It’s here where Hir falls down. Mac’s writing has a detonating quality, the old pieties around gender in particular exploding like squibs within the play’s rapid fire dialogue, yet in the second half the play struggles to marshal the arguments into a coherent vision. Part of this is deliberate: in the closing moments, Paige looks out the window at a world beyond that is clearly as without foundation or solidity as as the disintegrating house in which she lives. Yet it also risks making the play feel like little more than a gruesomely entertaining fun house. That it avoids becoming so is almost entirely thanks to the truly terrific Huffman who somehow grounds Paige’s highfalutin dialogue within an earthy, always persuasive naturalism.

Until Mar 16. Tickets: 020 7870 6876; parktheatre.co.uk