Either the emperor is wearing no clothes or I need to return to the Ahmanson and watch “The Humans” again. It won the Tony 2016, for best play. It has been greeted with accolades by major critics in its off-Broadway, Broadway, and the national tour performances. Los Angeles is the final stop in the tour and Jane Houdyshell (Deidre Blake) and Reed Birney (Erik Blake) are reprising their Tony award winning roles. Joe Mantello continues his role as Director. Little wonder I eagerly awaited the opening night performance.
What could possibly go wrong? From the opening night audience’s point of view little did. There was laughter throughout, which was writer Stephan Karam’s intent, all be it “The Humans” is not primarily a comedy. The set up is familiar. A family with adult children gathers for a holiday dinner. The Blakes are from Scranton Pennsylvania. Erik, the paterfamilias, made his first trip to New York City when he drove his eldest daughter, Aimee (Cassie Beck) for a job interview on 9/11. He is the head janitor at a Catholic school in Scranton. Mom, Deirdre, is the office manager at a company where she has worked for 40 years. She resents younger bosses who make more than she. They have brought wheelchair bound, Momo Blake (Lauren Klein), Eric’s mother. The whole family is devoted to the Alzheimer suffering Momo whose outbursts are unintelligible babbling. Catholicism is a guiding light for the couple. Not so for their daughters.
The holiday is Thanksgiving. They have gathered at the new apartment of younger daughter, Brigid (Sarah Steele), and her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Nick Mills). The couple has just moved in together and into new spacious — for Manhattan – digs in Chinatown. Their furniture is stuck in Queens adding to the cobbled together atmosphere of their “duplex,” a basement outside a noisy laundry room connected by a spiral staircase to the first floor with its one window facing a cigarette strewn alley. Mom and Dad are not charmed by it. Big sister, Aimee is a lesbian lawyer from Philadelphia for whom life has just taken several nasty turns: career-wise, health-wise, and relationship-wise. But she gets why the couple are so happy with with their strange new abode.
Brigid is an aspiring composer who is tending bar in two restaurants. She keeps bombing on job interviews because, she has learned, a professor she was counting on for letters of recommendation keeps damning her with faint praise. Playwright Karam does not seem to understand that interviews are not how composers get work, but perhaps that is beside the point. Boyfriend Richard is 38, older than Brigid, but finishing graduate school in Social Work. Although burdened with student debt for the moment, he will come into a trust fund at 40. Unlike the Blake family, he has come from a prosperous and educated family. Pointedly his family is not together for the holiday (or ever) and he is still being medicated for depression.
“The Humans” is one, 1 hour and 40-minute act, roughly enough time to consume a Thanksgiving dinner and a lot of wine and beer. During that time, we learn that life is not so good at the senior Blake house, but thick or thin, for better or for worse, mom and dad will stick together, make sacrifices, and make taking care of ailing Momo a priority. They are the salt of the earth. The daughters chafe under not so subtle suggestions that the couple get married or that the lawyer daughter discontinue being a lesbian. Despite the older couple’s internal friction, and the intergenerational friction, we know this family will always be there for each other. Throughout the action occasional very loud thuds are heard, supposedly caused by the Cantonese woman upstairs who does not speak English. Nearing the end, lights inexplicably turn off.
So what was I kvetching about in the first paragraph? It is a decent set up; not original, but plenty of material for dialogue. The acting is superb; Houdyshell and Birney are totally believable as the parents. Scenic Designer, David Zinn has drawn up a perfect quirky apartment; the kind that you can find in New York or Berkeley or any crowded city; the kind that young people fall in love with and their parents scratch their heads and fret about.
Director Joe Mantello has been with “The Humans” from early on. It moved from crowded off Broadway to the Helen Hayes Theatre. The Hayes has 597 seats and a fairly intimate configuration. The Ahmanson seats 2,000 and is a difficult house for drama. Little apparent adjustment has been made for this significant change in venue. Cross talk is frequent and totally indecipherable even from 12th row orchestra seats.
Are the direction and the house the whole problem? They are a big problem, but I do not believe that Karam has gone beyond the good set-up to get to the meat of a story. The characters are cut from stock. The layer of unexplained noises and malfunctioning lights vaguely suggest something more than an irritating neighbor. But if the intention was to suggest a whiff of horror, it missed the mark. If he was going for a whiff of horror, it only provoked laughter. At best “The Humans” is a light evening’s entertainment, unlikely to be remembered very well a couple of years after viewing. But that is not what the Tony committee thought. Chaque on a son gout.