Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The HumansNational Tour
Review by Bill Eadie

Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell,
Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills

Photo by Lawrence K. Ho
A family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner would be fodder for exposing dysfunction in most writers' hands. But, for Stephen Karam, it's an opportunity to uncover how a family stays functional in the face of challenges guaranteed to keep them awake or to have nightmares.

Mr. Karam's play is The Humans, and for a while it was the only non-musical running on Broadway. The Off-Broadway and Broadway productions won just about every best play award imaginable, and the original cast (Nick Mills was understudy for Arian Moayed as Richard) has returned to perform the Los Angeles run, at the Ahmanson through July 29, which wraps up an eight-month tour.

Described as a comedy, The Humans uses humor to sneak up on its audience. Gradually, the play reveals itself as having grander themes, such as what makes us safe and the degree to which the U. S. has a middle class anymore.

Instead of holding the family's annual Thanksgiving dinner at their Pennsylvania home, Erik and Deirdre Black (Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell) have traveled to the New York City apartment of their daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele) and her boyfriend Richard Saad (Nick Mills). Erik and Deirdre bring along Erik's mother "Momo" (Lauren Klein), who suffers from dementia, and daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck) is there, too.

Brigid and Richard live in a two-level basement flat in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood. It's a dark place and, despite a window, light doesn't penetrate through the air vent. The bathroom is upstairs and the kitchen is downstairs. A spiral staircase connects the two parts of the apartment, though each part also has a door to an interior hallway (David Zinn designed the set so cleverly that one suspects there must be a model for it somewhere).

Lights keep going out (Justin Townsend designed the lighting) and loud noises come at seemingly random intervals from the unit above (Fitz Patton designed the sound). The bathroom light doesn't shut off. Cell phone service is erratic. The furniture is basic. Only Richard, the family outsider and cook, appears to be in a festive mood (Sarah Laux designed the costumes).

Erik is immediately worried about the safety of Brigid and Richard. He recalls that Chinatown was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. But the young couple seem unfazed. After all, they have a lot of space for a Manhattan location, and Brigid is pursuing her artistic dreams while Richard is in grad school. And Richard is gracious and trying hard to please. Deirdre also tries to keep things funny and lighthearted.

Bit by bit, though, the conversation turns more serious, and family members begin to talk about things that haven't been going so well, problems with sleeping, bad dreams. Momo's erratic behavior and the physical irritations of the space begin to feel more intrusive. In some ways, the story begins to parallel Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, except this disintegration of the contemporary version of The American Dream is accompanied by quiet revelation, not by soaring declarations like “Attention must be paid!” As T. S. Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."

The brilliance of Joe Mantello's direction lies in his use of the odd space. Where characters are located at any given moment says much about who they are, in relation to the others. The brilliance of the ensemble, including Mr. Birney and Ms. Houdyshell, Tony Award winners for their performances in this play on Broadway, is that each cast member plays each moment of the no-intermission production with fidelity, not only to their own characters but to the other characters as well.

The result is an edge-of-the-seat theatrical event that should not be missed.

The Humans, through July 29, 2018, at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA. Performs Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No performance Wednesday, July 4; added performance Thursday, July 5. Tickets are available by calling 213-972-4400 or by visiting