Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the festive season in general are popular springboards for building character – driven stories.
Films such as Soul Food, The Family Stone, What’s Cooking and Home For The Holidays typically take disparate groups of people and dump them into heightened claustrophobia. If nothing else, to unmask false realities, tell tales out of school, or bring burning grievances to the table.
Written by Stephen Karam, The Humans is a variation on the above, but with a twist. The family in question, the Blakes, have lived under the one roof for their entire lives. This union tolerates if not entirely supports each other’s cultural differences and educational choices, through thick and through thin. Further, their pain and suffering are deflected with a hefty dose of Irish – Catholic humour.
Now, the family’s youngest daughter, Bridget (Sarah Steele) is moving into a shabby lower Manhattan apartment with her much older boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed). Through the initial excitement of this couple starting out, three generational struggles at the mercy of a current U.S. economy, quickly present a far bigger and sadder picture.
Ninety minutes in length and set in real time, the play is at the Helen Hayes Theatre on 44th Street in New York City. Directed by the renowned Joe Mantello, it should be noted that the production shifted from The Laura Pels Theater after a highly successful Off – Broadway run earlier this year.
The acting is solid, and even though this mainstream effort tackles left – of – centre topics like lesbian relationships, dementia, sibling favouritism, career frustrations, infidelity and work place redundancy, The Humans still feels safe, vital and real. These are flawed people we definitely know, can relate to, and understand.
The cast of six is led by Jayne Houdyshell. As mother, Deirdre, she is the glue who holds the entire operation together. She may eat her feelings, as Bridget rightly points out, but through the course of the play, we are allowed to understand why. A plot of land intended for a holiday house, along with the family home, must both be quickly sold, so that she and her cheating husband, Erik, (Reed Birney), can make ends meet.
Two further streams top this emotionally jam – packed story off.
Bridget’s older sister Aimee (Cassie Beck) has been dumped by her long – time girlfriend, and suffering from chronic ulcerative colitis, is no longer being considered for a partnership with her law firm. Aimee and Erik also share a special bond. Both were at the World Trade Center during 9/11, saved only by the luck of timing and circumstance.
Perhaps the show’s only theatrical drawback is David Zinn’s fragmented staging. Though integral to the story, and a source of many conversational markers, his set is divided onto two levels. For audiences in the orchestra, they may miss key points acted on the structure’s upper level, as some moments are not played completely stage front.
One extended sequence, where Deirdre reacts to finding a giant cockroach in the bedroom, can only be enjoyed by members of the stalls second – hand.
As a snapshot of the modern American family, The Humans is like stage – bound version of Big Brother, and can at times be an acquired taste. Given how it turns the mirror outward for everyone to see, where comedy and tragedy fuse together as one, the show nevertheless has many admirable qualities, and takes bold risks to prove its worth.