by Brian Scott Lipton
The “dysfunctional family gets together for a holiday” play (or movie), no matter how brilliant or funny, usually descends into unbelievability or mere cliché. But one of the triumphs of Stephen Karam’s stunning new work The Humans, now being given a magnificently acted production at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre under Joe Mantello’s nearly flawless direction, is how every one of the 90 or so minutes we spend with the Blakes seem blazingly authentic.
In addition to troubled patriarch Erik (a devastating Reed Birney), a dyed-in-the-wool Scrantonite and Catholic school equipment manager, the Blake family includes his good-natured, devoutly religious, and steadfastly unhappy wife Deirdre (the great Jayne Houdyshell in a Tony-worthy turn); Erik’s elderly mother “Momo” (the amazing Lauren Klein), who is mostly lost to dementia; his eldest daughter Aimee (the invaluable Cassie Beck), a lesbian lawyer battling illness, a recent break-up, and even more recent news that her job is in jeopardy; and her younger sister Brigid (the beautifully wry Sarah Steele), a struggling musician trying to make ends meets.
It’s Brigid who is hosting the “festivities” at the large if somewhat creepy Chinatown apartment she’s just moved into with her considerably older boyfriend Richard (a superb Arian Moyaed), a very laid-back social work student who will shortly inherit a very large trust fund. He’s an outsider doing his best to make his way inside this close-knit group, even sharing his very strange dreams.
Indeed, what happens during this visit is both predictable—relationships seem to momentarily crumble, insults are made thoughtlessly, too much wine is consumed—and completely surprising. Karam seems to know just when to reveal a key plot point—such as what happened to Erik and Aimee’s first visit together to New York or why there’s so much tension between Erik and Deirdre—so that it feels organic. And it’s the little things that count just as well: the singing of a traditional Irish song; the clobbering of the “peppermint pig”; or, the reception to Deirdre’s unwanted housewarming gift all make us feel as if we’re flies on the walls of David Zinn’s ultra-realistic duplex set.
About that set: the one possibly questionable element of Karam’s play is his decision to make the apartment (and apartment building) its own character. The loud noises from above and next door, the lights that mysteriously go out, and the door that seems to close on its own, are in some ways reinforcements of Erik’s alienation (he’s also a stranger in a strange land) as well as a sharp commentary on the high price of living in Manhattan. But at times, Karam’s almost supernatural machinations seem better suited to a B-grade horror movie, and ultimately distract from his must-be-heard message.
Because in the end, what The Humans reminds us is that, no matter what, there is no substitute for family. (Hell may be a creepy Chinatown apartment, but it is not “other people.”) Even as we see the Blakes in their worst moments, Karam convinces us that nothing can tear these people apart. As Erik repeatedly reminds his clan: “This is what we have. This is what matters.”
The Humans is currently ticketing through July 24 the Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway). Tickets: 212-239-6200 or http://www.newyorkcitytheatre.com/theaters/helenhayestheater/theater.php
*Photo by Joan Marcus