title>' The Humans '| a CurtainUp Review
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A CurtainUp Review
A Perfect Broadway Transfer Makes it a Strong Tony Contender For Best Play
By Elyse Sommer
Stephen Karam's The Humans has fortuitously found an opening at the Helen Hayes Theater which isn't that much bigger than the Laura Pels Theater where it premiered (The Helen Hayes has 578, The Laura Pels 405). And the entire original team — actors, director and designers — are on board.
Now that I've had a chance to revisit Karam's family drama at the Helen Hayes, I'm pleased to report that it does indeed offer a satisfying hour and a half in the theater. If there are any changes, it's that, this outstanding ensemble has settled more deeply into their characters and that David Zinn's seedy and two-level looks great at the Helen Hayes stage. Besides being the right size to maintain the intimacy of Mr. Karam's close knit but troubled family Thanksgiving celebration, the theater's dark and somewhat dingy maroon walls evoke the same nice but somewhat seedy aura of the play's set. Like the Chinatown duplex (actually a combined basement and first floor apartment) in which Karam's family dinner party plays out, the Helen Hayes needs extensive repairs before 2nd Stage can launch it as its Broadway home.
The current producton also defied another off to on Broadway transfer risk: that it might not appeal to Broadway audiences. The house has been packed since the play re-opened. And the audience seemed to respond more to the humor than they did when I saw the original production. In fact, I too appreciated the comic elements more, and the subtle way they intensified the darker mood towards the end.
As is the case with all live theater, response to a play is affected by what's going on in the real world. Seeing The Humans in the midst of people like the Blakes endorsing candidates prompted more by anger than practicality as a result of their escalating struggles with money and health problems. Clearly, Stephen Karam writes plays that are more than entertainments, but timely meaningful reflections on the human condition.
Since it's been such a short time since I reviewed The Humans, and it has undergone no changes except where it's playing, what follows is a very slightly updated replay of my previous review. Karam's play falls into the long popular category of realistic family dramas. The story unfolds during a family get-together. Instead it's the parents who leave home and one of the daughters and her boyfriend who are hosting the dinner.
Since The Humans unfolds during that all-American holiday, Thanksgiving, the six people sharing turkey and their special annual rituals represent much of what's turned the American Dream an all too common nightmare — especially for families like the Blakes still strongly rooted in the working class. No wonder both Erik and Rich are beset by disturbing dreams.
The new home of the Blake's youngest daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her significant other, Richard (Arian Moayed) is really less a loft than a two-story tenement in New York's Chinatown. The senior Blakes (Reed Birney as Erik and Jayne Houdyshell as his wife Deirdre) are, from Scranton, Pennsylvanialike, which was the setting for Karam's terrific Sons of the Prophet.,
Both Brigid and her lesbian sister Aimee (Cassie Beck), have left Scranton for less middlebrow and more upscale lives than their parents — Brigid as a musician, Aimee a lawyer. Deirdre and Erik miss their daughters and wish they hadn't abandoned the family's religious values and more coventional romantic choices. However, Brigid and Aimee's upward mobility aims are in keeping with what their parents always worked for, namely that their children should do better than them.
Once the out-of-town Blakes arrive at Brigid's apartment — Deirdre and Erik with his "Moma" (Lauren Klein) who has advanced Alzheimer's in tow and Aimee from Philadelphia — the same themes Karam explored in Sons of the Prophet begin to surface: The frailty of the American Dream in a system that sends those who've taken a giant step forward (owning their homes, planning enjoyable retirements) two steps back as they must shoulder the unfair burdens of aging, illness, a changing economy — and their children failing to gain a firm foothold on anticipated success. As if coping with what's beyond their control weren't enough for these people, there's the fallout from personal failings.
By bringing the Blakes to New York, Karam establishes a sense of malaise reaching beyond factory towns like Scranton. Brigid and Richard's apartment is close enough to the World Trade Center tragedy to stir uneasy memories, especially for anyone who was there. And that apartment with its windowless ground floor isn't the kind of 'real estate New Yorkers dream about.
Lighting and sound designers Justin Townsend and Fitz Patton beautifully support David Zinn's authentically spacious but shabby set. The still largely unfurnished apartment with its unreliable lights and toilets is ripe for plenty of humor but also sets the tone for a celebration overhung by an overall sense of unease. The two floors also give the playwright a chance to efficiently make the audience privy to the various causes of individual and inter-personal tensions and build the expectation of some sort of explosive revelation by Erik.
While the dilemma of the senior Blakes is the play's most intense, this is very much an American tragedy, with health and job problems also affecting the sisters. Richard, who's preparing the meal, is from a different class than the Blakes. Like Sons of the Prophet's transplanted New Yorker who moved to Scranton for a less pressured business environment, Richard seems enamored of a chance to be part of this family. While he is not exactly a member of the one percent who have everything to gain from the unfair disparities in the current economy, growing up up in a family of professionals has not been problem free (which is why he's still in grad school at age 38). Still, he does have a trust fund to shelter him from the financial hardships faced by the Blakes.
Mr. Karam skillfully establishes the situation and develops the family dynamic with dialogue so real you feel you're eavesdropping. But even Joe Mantello's directorial expertize can't prevent this theatrical platter from coming off as piled somewhat too high with problems. Fortunately, the the actors manage to deflect from this.
Reed Birney once again proves himself to be one of our best and most versatile actors. Jane Houdyshell can tease laughs out of pain and anger. Sarah Steele continues to build on her busy resume creating winning characters on stage and screen. Cassie Beck is touching as the sister with health, romantic and job problems, and Arian Moayed is excellent as the devoted but hardly trouble free Richard.
Jane Klein has the most difficult role as the dementia stricken mother whose care is an emotional and financial nightmare for Deirdre and Erik. A farewell e-mail she sent to her family before heading for the darkness of the illness she knows is overtaking her is one of Mr. Karam's master strokes. I was somewhat less intrigued with the discussion of Quasar, a scary monster comic book that explains the title and is supposed to tie in with the play's business.
These people aren't don't commit crimes that will send them to jail. Their troubles and failings are indeed human, humorous and loving and some of their interchanges are painful to watch rather than an easy divertisement. Mr. Karam doesn't end the party with easy solutions. In fact, when it's over you know things might get even worse for the Blakes by Christmas. but you also know that they'll still be there for each other.
The Humans certainly left me looking forward to celebrating holidays with my own family, hopefully without all this sturm and drang. But no matter how lucky we are in terms of escaping the misfortunes experienced by the Blakes, the fear of ill health, old age and death haunts all of us. True to Momo's mumblings, there are some places from which "you can never come back."
Sons of the Prophet
Speech and Debate
Columbinus his early and all too timely collaboration with PJPapareli.
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The Humans by Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Cassie Beck (Aimee), Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre), Arian Moayed (Richard), Sarah Steele (Brigid) and Lauren Klein (Fiona "Momo Blake)
Sets: David Zinn
Costumes: Sarah Laux
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage manager: William Joseph Barnes
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, no intermission
Helen Hayes Theater 240 West 44th Street, originally at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center from September to December 2015.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer, re-reviewed 3/02/16.
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