The Humans

Melinda Schupmann Reviews - Theater

The Humans is, quite remarkably, a surprising theatrical achievement in this era of escalating spectacle. There are no special effects, no dazzling lights, no soaring music, nor any explosions (unless you count loud thumping from an apartment above Richard (Nick Mills) and Brigid’s (Sarah Steele) New York two-story flat). The play concerns simply the interactions among an Irish-Catholic family from Scranton who have come to spend Thanksgiving together in the couples’s new apartment. It is so new, in fact, that they are not fully unpacked and are missing some necessities. Lights go off and on, and no light bulbs are in evidence foreshadowing things to come.

It’s clear from the outset that they are a companionable bunch, but the usual family carping signals that there are issues among the group. First up, Matriarch Fiona “Momo” Blake (Lauren Kline) arrives in a wheelchair suffering from advanced dementia, and son Erik Blake (Reed Birney) and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are her caregivers. From the reaction of the family’s solicitude, it is evident that Momo has played a positive role in their lives. Even so, her care is causing a strain, because it is learned that there is no money to provide the kind of professional relief needed.

Mom Deirdre begins by reminding Brigid that marriage is preferable to simply cohabiting. This appears to be a familiar refrain, so Brigid deflects the advice and bustles around trying to keep tensions down. They are joined by sister Aimee (Cassie Beck). We learn that she has just broken up with her longtime girlfriend, is facing surgery for ulcerative colitis, and her law firm has passed her over for a partnership, which is career threatening. Boyfriend Richard is a social worker, and his more affluent background causes some friction with dad Erik, a custodian in a school.

Yes, there are problems. As the day unfolds, more issues come to light, and tempers flare. The beauty of the play is that it is delivered in such a humorous and sensitive manner that it seems utterly familiar to anyone who has been part of a close-knit family, especially at holiday time.

Nominated for nearly every award given in a season, this is the original Broadway cast, and director Joe Mantello, also along to reprise his take on Stephen Karam’s affecting script, delivers exactly what was lauded by all the critics.

Houdyshell and Birney's strong performances anchor the play. Hard-working and matter-of-fact, they stoically soldier on, taking life as it comes and moving forward. Beck is particularly touching as she faces her character's serious problems.

Mills and Steele acquit themselves well as the couple just finding their footing, and Klein is remarkable as she makes senility harrowingly believable.

David Zinn's bi-level set design serves Mantello well, giving him scope to move his actors fluidly from scene to scene. Justin Townsend's lighting design is also notable, as Karam uses diminishing light as a theatrical tool to draw attention to escalating troubles in the family.

There have been hundreds of plays written about family dynamics, sometimes even set, as this one is, in an apartment around a dinner table. This play is a notch above the pack, and it is notable for its naturalistic style and dialogue that packs a subtle punch. It is utterly believable, sympathetic, and its humor guarantees that it will be a theatrical staple illuminating the human condition.

The Humans is performed at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 Grand Ave., Los Angeles. June 19-July 29. Tickets are $30-130. 213-972-4400 or for dates and times.