Sunday, March 20, 2016

Theater Review—'The Humans’ on Broadway

The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam; directed by Joe Mantello
Opened February 18, 2016
Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

The cast of The Humans (photo: Joan Marcus)

On Broadway, Stephen Karam’s The Humans shows its seams more readily than it did in its earlier off-Broadway incarnation. In this 95-minute play, the Blake family gathers for a Thanksgiving dinner in youngest daughter Brigid and boyfriend Richard's new Chinatown apartment: father Erik, mother Deirdre and grandmother Fiona drove down from Scranton, while oldest daughter Aimee took the train from Philadelphia. 

Although he writes intelligent dialogue for his believable characters, Karam often stacks the deck dramatically, whether spilling family secrets at regular intervals—usually when someone overhears something near the winding staircase separating the apartment's two floors—or dragging in September 11th to give the Blakes another near-tragedy to deal with, as if what's going on in their daily lives isn't enough. 

In addition, what was a mere laugh-getter before (upstairs noises, presumably from an annoying neighbor) has been turned into something quasi-supernatural, as the noises get progressively louder until they eventually seem like a horror movie soundtrack. Similarly, the play's final image of a darkened apartment with a door opened onto the building's hallway is the most forced attempt at a desperate shock effect than anything I've seen on Broadway since a ghost's appearance at the end of Shining City.

Then there's Karan asking us to believe that a 60-year-old man and his 61-year-old wife would drive in a Thanksgiving snowstorm for more than three hours with his sickly 79-year-old mother in tow, only to leave after visiting their daughter in Manhattan for a mere hour and a half. Allowing them to spend the night, either at Brigid's place or a nearby motel, and start fresh in the morning would be more—well, humane. 

Happily, Joe Mantello's confident direction and the superlative cast—Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Lauren Klein and, most impressively, Sarah Steele—make The Humans seem more substantial than it ultimately is.

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