Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 18, 2016
The Humans by Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Sarah Laux. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele.
Yet despite this, and despite the fact that Karam has set The Humans amid the potentially bone-shattering circumstances of a family Thanksgiving dinner, what disturbs, unsettles, and ultimately transforms in ways both enervating and edifying is never downbeat. Though this is Karam's first Broadway transfer (and it's every bit as good as it was when it premiered Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre in October), it shares with his previous plays columbinus, Speech & Debate, and Sons of the Prophet (a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist) a knack for unlocking our darkest, coldest truths through precise application of light and heat. This bestows upon what is, at least at first, a pretty typical dysfunctional-family drama new layers of depth, weight, and significance that make this as effective and affecting as anything the Main Stem has seen in years.
But it presents itself as something remarkably unprepossessingan ideal quality, when you stop to think of it, for a ghost story in which no ghosts technically appear. Our first glimpse of the action is of Erik (Reed Birney), the Blake patriarch, standing in what appears to be the hollowed-out upstairs of a house that, well, has seen better days. In fact, no, as we soon learn: This is the new Chinatown residence of his daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele), and her boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed), their first "castle" together and where the dinner is being held. Already accomplishment is being confused with failure and forging ahead with stumbling backthemes that will be returned to time and time again as the story unfolds.
We'll eventually learn the source of Erik's disquiet, and for that matter explore it from the inside out, but it's far from the only example of it on display. Brigid is a musician who's having to work two survival jobs. Richard, though in his late 30s, is in school, recovering depression, and waiting out a trust from his grandmother that should (in theory) salve his money woes for life. Blake mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) is upset that Brigid and Richard aren't married, and has been burying herself in volunteering to smother that and other, even more unpleasant, thoughts. The older daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck), is afflicted with ulcerative colitis and, worse, a broken soul from splitting from the girlfriend she sees as her last chance. Finally, Erik's mother, Fiona (Lauren Klein), appears to be in the final stages of a particularly virulent dementia.
Unfortunately for them, these problems may not be solved, or for that matter even addressed, for reasons unrelated to the bizarrely echoing sounds coming from the old Chinese lady in the apartment above or the light bulbs that have a knack for blowing out at the worst possible times. That's just not the way of things. Karam recognizes, highlights, and manipulates the festering resentments and unspoken secrets at play in any family, and uses them to pull back the veil on how we all deal with adversity. Do we plow on through like Brigid? Do we wither in the face of it like Aimee? Do we pretend it will go away like Deirdre? These are important things to know, even if there's no good solutionor, for that matter, a solution at all.
Of course, none of this would have any impact if the acting weren't good, but this is an airtight ensemble. Even if you've experienced Birney's and Houdyshell before, they reach new heights here, melting into this extraordinarily ordinary couple with unsettling accuracy. From him you feel the sting of personal torment that's eroding Erik's being and his ability to hold things together, while amplifying his desire to do just that. The increasing distance to which Deirdre withdraws as her dreams become less and less tangible is central to Houdyshell's performance; she becomes less and less garrulous, and less herself, with each passing moment. Both do exquisite work of the foremost naturalistic order.
The others develop their roles just as richly, with Aimee and Brigid's quiet rebelliions (inward for the former, outward for the latter) the centerpieces of Steele's and Beck's intricate portrayals; Moayed, if a bit more reserved (and his part a bit smaller), takes a similarly impressive, if more haunted, approach that works well for Richard. And Klein, in the quasi-soothsayer role, crafts a wrenching (and vital) arc for a woman who's barely capable of stringing coherent phrases together.
Listen carefully to Fiona's disjointed ramblings, however, and you may hear the echoes of common sense. This is a woman who's as terrified as the others but has lost the capacity to know the source of her fears. This gives her a strength and a resilience that resounds within the sepulchral walls surrounding her, and the lives that are trapped within no less surely than she is. There's always some good reason to be afraid, and plenty of bad ones; with The Humans, Karam shows us the value in bothand a whole lot more.