By Karen Isaacs
The Humans opened off-Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater last fall to very positive reviews. It had a limited run, but now the production has moved to a relatively small Broadway house – the Helen Hayes – with its cast intact.
The Humans, written by Stephen Karam who is a younger playwright of much promise. I’ve seen his Speech & Debate; his Sons of the Prophet won a number of awards and was a 2012 Pulitzer finalist.
It is Thanksgiving and three older members of the Blake family have traveled into New York City from Scranton (Karam’s home town) to spend the holiday with their two daughters. Making the trip are Eric (Reed Birney) and his wife, Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), long married and in their early 60s, plus his mother Fiono or “Momo” (Lauren Klein) who suffers from dementia; Eric and Deidre are her caregivers.
They arrive at Brigid’s, their daughter, new apartment of which she and her boyfriend, Richard (Aaron Moyaed) are incredibly proud. Only a young NYC couple would find the below ground, Chinatown apartment acceptable. The woman living above seemingly stamps or drops heavy objects randomly, the trash compactor goes on and off making loud noises and the boiler also makes noise. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer.
The first part of this one-act 95-minute play is about setting the scene. We learn a lot; money is tight; Eric works for a private school as an equipment manager for the athletics department. He has done so for years and it allowed his daughters to attend the school. Deidre is an office manager, underpaid and under-appreciated.
We also learn that Richard is a graduate student in social work while Brigid (Sarah Steele) bar tends to pay bills but is an aspiring artist – later we learn she is a composer. Aimee is a lesbian who suffers from colitis.
The family is awkward with each other – they don’t really know Richard, Eric doesn’t like the apartment or its location, and Aimee and Brigid squabble as sisters do.
As the play progresses, the problems this lower middle class family have multipled to an astonishing degree. It begins to be like a soap opera.
That is part of the problem. Karam seems to be “piling on” the problems and complications. He even manages to bring in Sept. 11.
Aimee in addition to her illness, is being let go from her law firm probably because of it, her girlfriend has left her, and she may need surgery.
But the biggest problem/complication is revealed near the end of the play. Eric has been waiting to tell his daughters some disturbing news. He has been fired from the school and will not be getting a pension. The reason? He apparently had a liaison with a female teacher.
The cast is uniformly good and the set by David Zinn absolutely reveals a quirky NYC apartment that only young New Yorkers would accept. Fitz Patton deserves credit for the variety of sounds that emanate from above and outside the apartment.
Birney and Houdyshell are terrific as the parents, even if I did not believe that Birney would have had an affair. They are a blue collar couple, scrimping and saving and making do. They care for Fiona because there is no money to pay for assistance. Deidre puts her faith in religion, but cannot totally hide her bitterness. Eric just seems worn out; he is gray.
Cassie Beck as Aimee draws on our sympathies; she has so many problems, and seems so vulnerable. Sarah Steele as Brigid has the optimism of youth; though she too has her problems; she recently learned that the recommendations a professor is writing for her various grant applications are halfhearted, at best.
Richard is the odd man out in this group. He seems to have no real problems; he’s in his late 30s but goes to school, doesn’t work and at 40 will be able to tap the trust fund his grandmother left him. No worries about student loans. Yet, despite his upper middle class background, he seems lonely – his parents are in two different places and he obviously, doesn’t want (or wasn’t invited) to visit either for the holiday.
Despite their problems, this family loves each other and tries to support and help each other. They accept Richard, but he is mainly an observer to the family dynamic.
Joe Mantello’s fine direction gets beneath the surface of the characters and creates a true reality– you feel as though you are eavesdropping on their lives.
The Humans combines a superb cast with insightful comments about the societal and economic conditions facing the lower middle class and those that strive to leave it behind.
It is at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.