Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The entire 90-minute play takes place in real time in the lower Manhattan duplex apartment of 20-something aspiring musician Brigid Blake (an endearing if ultimately one-dimensional Alex Keiper) and her boyfriend Richard (Ibrahim Miari). As Richard puts the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner, Brigid tries to show off their new apartment, but her family is quick to point out that there are more than a few flaws in this crumbling pre-war half-basement unit. Mom Deirdre (Mary Martello expertly balances matronly warmth with an acerbic wit) complains about the cacophony of noises coming from the apartment above and repeatedly produces passive aggressive presents from a care package of basic necessities. Father Erik (Greg Wood's performance is unfortunately inconsistent) helpfully suggests they caulk around the edges of the floor boards to prevent infestation and seems to be dealing with a persistent physical ailment he dismisses as a lack of sleep. Increasingly demented grandmother Fiona (Sharon Alexander's performance is devastating and spectacular) is wheelchair-bound and needs to take the elevator down the hall to navigate between the apartments floors. Older sister Aimee (Jennie Eisenhower's on-the-phone monologue is phenomenal) is also hassled by the second floor bathroom because she is dealing with a serious case of ulcerative colitis exacerbated by a break-up that she is still trying to get over.
As an insightful and humorous foray into the struggles of the modern family the production is a success. Martello in particular has a gift for comic timing and the entire cast wisely plays off of her every snide insult and exhausted eye roll. But The Humans is also meant to raise some serious issues about the struggles facing working class Americans and invoke a sense of anxiousness bordering on fear. It does not succeed on either count, offering only boredom and confusion where the play should be at its most inventive.
An overzealous commitment to realism in the staging is partly to blame. Scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz has created an apartment so large and realistic you could move in tomorrow, but director Barnard Harvard keeps the entire Thanksgiving dinner scene tightly cemented to one tiny table with Keiper's back directly to the audience the entire time. At first the choice to basically ignore the audience is interesting, but when the dialogue is difficult to follow it quickly becomes frustrating, and ultimately boring, as any long dinner conversation that one is unable to break away from. In the climactic final scene both lighting and sound are tepid, but that is a minor problem compared to the fact that at least a third of the audience cannot see past the half open door. I do not want to give anything away, but straining to see through that door and hearing the luckier audience members laugh and gasp is as frustrating as hearing your partner climax without you.
There are more mundane problems too. The lighthearted banter references more serious concerns, but does not prepare the audience for a seemingly endless series of revelations that seem to come out of nowhere. Wood in particular seems to be dealing with some physical discomfort rather than struggling with a life altering crisis.
If you have been looking forward The Humans like I have, you will likely leave this production a little disappointed.
The Humans, through March 4th, 2018, on the Walnut Street Theatre's Mainstage, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or ticketmaster.
Production and Design Staff