The Humans, Stephen Karam’s nuanced slice-of-life drama that unfolds during a family’s Thanksgiving dinner, has transferred intact to the Helen Hayes, in a production that has become even more timely in its expression of middle class anxieties, but remains most noteworthy for the exquisite performances by some of New York’s finest stage actors.
The Blakes have gathered together for Thanksgiving in the new home of the youngest daughter, Brigid, who lives with her boyfriend, Rich, in a run-down apartment in Chinatown. It’s a duplex, but the bottom floor is in the basement, and the top floor is just as dark. Brigid’s parents Erik and Deirdre have made the trip from their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania with Erik’s senile mother, whom everybody calls Momo, and their older daughter Aimee, a lawyer in Philadelphia.
Although Thanksgiving with the family has long been a standard set-up on stage and screen, with tensions boiling over and secrets revealed, there are several ways The Humans stand out. The play is presented as if in real time, 95 continuous minutes with a family whose lives are as fun-loving, messy and chaotic as anybody’s in real life, and while there is only occasionally overlapping dialogue, the characters frequently go about their separate business on both levels of David Zinn‘s unusual two-tiered set while others are talking.
This textured naturalism eventually gives way to what some have labeled the supernatural, taking advantage of the already unnerving environment of a broken down New York apartment that has frequent electrical outages and strange groaning noise. The lights suddenly shut off; pots and pans mysteriously crash to the floor; a stranger walks by the open door; is she a ghost?
This cleverly created atmosphere of dread strikes me as an outward manifestation of the characters’ fears and anxieties. Although The Humans opened just four months ago Off-Broadway, now when Erik says “Don’tcha think it should cost less to be alive?” it feels like the kind of question being asked by a large swath of the electorate during this unusual presidential election year. Each family member faces particular struggles – more than we realize until the end. Erik and Deirdre, who have worked all their lives in blue-collar jobs, are afraid they will be unable to make ends meet. Their children are nervous about their future. Brigid is afraid she won’t ever get a job as a musician, or indeed any full-time job. Her sister Aimee says: “I lost my job, my girlfriend, and I’m bleeding internally” – from a debilitating colitis – “really a banner year.”
Only the aptly named Rich seems relatively content; he’s a trust-fund kid soon to come into his inheritance. But it’s telling that he is a subtle target of resentment
Under the deft direction of Tony winner Joe Montello (Wicked, The Normal Heart, Other Desert Cities plus two dozen other Broadway plays and musicals), The Humans features actors who have given flawless performances in show after show. Reed Birney’s Erik is the kind of shaded portrayal Birney has presented on New York stages for 40 years — in such works as Annie Baker’s debut play Circle, Mirror Transformation and in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina — that help lend credibility to the entire enterprise. Jayne Houdyshell, as Deirdre, gives her usual warm, sympathetic portrayal; she is another one of those actors who,by her very presence, guarantees there will be something worth watching in any show.
Sarah Steele, the younger daughter Brigid, is best-known as Alan Cumming’s wise-cracking daughter in the TV series The Good Wife, but she has been impressive in a variety of stage roles; Arian Moayed, who plays Rich, made a memorable Broadway debut in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. I was less familiar with the work of the other two cast members, but Cassie Beck is completely credible as the older sister and Lauren Klein is frighteningly good in the difficult role of Momo, whose deadened affect is interrupted by brief moments of lucidity and longer explosions of irrational temper.
For all the problems the characters face, the actors are superb in communicating an affection and good humor that feels genuine and that draws us in. They do justice to the work of playwright Stephen Karam, here making his Broadway debut, who has developed a nearly cult following as the result of two plays, Speech & Debate (reportedly being made into a movie), and Sons of the Prophet. In my review in October, I called the cast Off-Broadway royalty. All six had been on Broadway before, but the description was an attempt to get at the sensibility of the performances, which feel not just like an ensemble, but like a family.
The Humans is on stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036, between 7th and 8th Avenue.) Tickets and details
The Humans by Stephen Karam; Directed by Joe Mantello . Featuring Cassie Beck as Aimee Blake, Reed Birney as Erik Blake, Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre Blake, Sarah Steele as Brigid Blake, Arian Moayed as Richard and Lauren Klein as Fiona “Momo” Blake. David Zinn scenic design, Sarah Laux costume design, Justin Townsend lighting design, Fitz Patton sound design. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.