Theatre Review: The Humans
The Humans, by Stephen Karam
Directed by Joe Mantello
Broadway, Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan of February 27, 2016
It is difficult to review the new Broadway play The Humans, by Stephen Karam, directed by Joe Mantello, without giving away an unfortunate plot twist near the end, a creative decision so grievous that it ruins what had been an involving, superior piece of work. Drama is enhanced, may only be truly affecting, when the element of surprise is present, even if the revivals of well-known classics, always a staple of theater seasons on Broadway and around the country, might belie that piece of wisdom. Plus, modern criticism tends to fill space by relying too heavily on plot description, so we’ll spare the reader the actual events on stage at the finish of this production.
But it’s hard. Because up until that time, The Humans, a transfer from Off-Broadway and produced by The Roundabout Theatre company and over 20 individual producers, had been a lively, thoughtful, sad and funny, if somewhat narrow work, featuring a fantastic set, active and ingenious staging by one of Broadway’s best, strong ensemble acting by a combination of veterans and relative newcomers, sharp exchanges and well-observed, recognizably absurd and touching behavior by a bright, honored young playwright. All this makes the offense at the play’s finish tough to lay off.
Context might help, however, so let’s give some sense of the story, without, it is hoped, overdoing it: in the near-present in downtown Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 tragedy, the financially and emotionally troubled Blake family, Irish-Catholics from blue-collar Scranton, PA, gather for a combination housewarming and Thanksgiving dinner at the rough-hewn split-level ground floor apartment of daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her lover Richard (Arian Moayed). Dad Erik (Reed Birney) is a longtime head of maintenance at a Scranton private school and Mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) an office manager. Both are overworked and underpaid, and, unfamiliar with the city, react with a mixture of embarrassment and fear at the tattered New York digs of their daughter. Brigid’s hopes for a music career are foundering and she has taken a job at a restaurant; Richard, 38, more than ten years older than Brigid, is a sensitive fellow getting his grad degree in social work. Erik and Deirdre bring along his aged mother to the dinner: “Momo” (Lauren Klein) wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia. They are joined by oldest daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) an acerbic lawyer who has recently broken up with her female lover, as well as learned that her chronic colitis will cause her to soon be fired from her job.
The family discusses their various difficulties, both laughing and bemoaning their state: Erik has insomnia and bad dreams; Deirdre, overweight, struggling with diets, wants Brigid and Richard to marry; Aimee’s own health crisis keeps her running to the bathroom while Momo bursts out in cries of nonsense and anger. There is tension beneath Brigid and Richard’s relationship. It is learned that Richard suffered depression earlier in his life and takes medication; he will inherit a trust fund when he turns forty; the plain-spoken parents try hard to connect with neurotic, cosmopolitan Richard. Eventually, it is revealed that Erik has an announcement to make to his daughters, but drinking beer, puts it off. At dinner, the relatives give thanks and read a sincere message Momo wrote before dementia took over; the Blakes find solace from their disappointing lives in shared love. But Erik’s final revelation returns the group to despair and confusion; only a darker, irremediable state this time.
Alright, we overdid it, but at least the very ending was left out. To avoid that temptation, let’s focus on the technical aspects, which deserve mention, and appreciation:
The apartment, designed by David Zinn, one of Broadway’s top set artists, currently represented on stage by Fun Home, is drab yet creepily threatening. (The Heaven/Hell symbol of the two floors is unsubtle but discomfiting nonetheless.) The set captures the foreignness of Manhattan rentals, where, with second-hand furniture, blown fuses, barred windows and strange noises from neighbors, tenants are never safe at home. Lighting by Justin Townsend and Sound by Fitz Patton add to the unnerving, ominous ambience. It is not hyperbole to say that the tech values of the production exemplify the very best of American theater, successfully fulfilling the mission of deepening and broadening the script and the audience’s experience.
But, ah, that ending—let’s talk about the direction. Joe Mantello has had a fine career as an actor in such groundbreaking pieces as The Normal Heart and Angels In America, and has now added long, illustrious credits as a director, including Wicked and the upcoming Blackbird. He keeps the movement and interaction natural, energetic and slightly off-base, maintaining a sense of doom beneath the affectionate banter. The piece runs a quick 95 minutes and the audience is drawn into the commonplace goings-on of the Blakes, seeing and feeling itself living and hurting within the family.
The acting is the height of what can be described as modern Super-Realism; every moment/beat, is sincere, clear, real. As the parents Erik & Deidre, Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell, two actors who both seem to do at least a show a year, often plays unworthy of their talents, find creditable parts. The older Blakes are painful in their homeliness, misperceptions and simmering hostility towards each other, and the unfair world. Birney’s desperate need to support his daughter’s mediocre music career, and Houdyshell’s dogged embrace of pious Catholicism, are only two examples of the pathetic and devoted nature of the mother and father. In their willingness to get down, get their hands dirty, the actors are great.
As the sardonic, ill, and heartbroken lawyer Aimee, Cassie Beck captures the modern tendency towards self-deprecatory humor as a numbing relief from anguish; it is an intricate and bold job. Arian Moayed is detailed and authentic as the cloying, caring Richard, a difficult part that he makes a complete success. In the most conventional role of Brigid, Sarah Steele is forthright and dynamic; Brigid’s identity as the youngest daughter weighs down her fervent need to grow up and find self-reliance. Special congrats must be given to the courage of Lauren Klein as Momo, the kind of role older actors dread and sometimes turn down, but which here, forms a terrifying central specter and warning of the years to come.
The play itself uses the unpretentiousness and outer jollity of its characters to cover a helpless existential dread, a topic covered a few seasons ago in The Realistic Joneses (reviewed here). But that Will Eno play was more absurdist and original (and did we mention it had a better ending?). Here, author Karam, whose previous play Sons Of The Prophet, was an award-winning hit Off-Broadway, does get more emotion into his piece than the cold Joneses. With its drinking and laughter in the dark, Humans also somewhat resembles Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Or a scene out of the O’Neill classic, anyway, since despite its piercing talk and disturbingly off-balance relationships, Humans is still another in the growing line of talented yet thin one-act Broadway dramas, the only kind that seem to be able to hold the attention of a scattered 21st century crowd.
Well, no use waiting, the end: the shift in the story near the close is unearned, implausible nonsense; it insults the audience and undoes the play. Instead of letting the day-to-day failures and fears of the Blakes serve as a metaphor for people’s strained but resolute tries at reaching up and out to the cosmos, rebelling against our frail humanity, the play decides to put the blame on the temporal figures in front of us, or one of them anyway. The result is simplistic soap-opera, a concretely banal theme that knocks out the potentially prophetic banality of the characters’ lives. Instead of confronting the supernatural Power/Force/Father, the ending just gives us the fashionable, politically correct Punish The On-Stage Patriarch. (A similar device was used in Death Of A Salesman, but it was followed by the forgiveness of wife Linda’s “attention must be paid”.) Here, the easy condemnation seems comfortable in the world of afternoon TV talk show morality; it is theater by The View.
The reason for this choice is unclear, but the sheer amount of producers on the project leads us to believe there may have been Too Many Cooks. There could have been the anxiety that the play lacked Drama, causing more action to be injected. It is depressing to think the playwright, perhaps eager to get his work on Broadway, might have had to cave in to this expedient plot device in order to achieve his dream.
The audience leaves the theater easily able to remove themselves from the Blakes, escaping identification with this Family of Man. They can fix sin, find fault, confidently point the finger of Blame at Dad, and so, feel free of our shared alienation, weakness, shame, and tragedy, and also our common need, struggle, enjoyment, and communion with each other.
The Humans, humans, can do better.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In the summer of 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.